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For kids with food allergies, Disney doesn't have to be a drag

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Spring break is fast approaching, and many families will head to the theme parks of Orlando, Fla., to celebrate.

When you have children with food allergies, the best strategy is to plan months ahead. This is especially true if you plan to fly, want to dine at a particular restaurant or attend a character meal with princesses or mascots. These popular meals book up as early as six months in advance, so if you haven't booked one already, you're not likely to get in.

Still, as I learned last fall, it's possible to plan a fantastic and safe trip with a few weeks notice.

Between them, my children are allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, dairy and eggs. Yet, we were able to eat safely at a variety of sit-down and fast-food restaurants throughout Disney. Here's what we learned:

1. If you're dealing with a peanut allergy and are flying to Orlando, call ahead to request that no peanut products be served on the flight. Reconfirm two days before takeoff. Bring your own snacks.

We did this with Southwest Airlines (which I did not know is nicknamed the "peanut airline"), and they alerted the crew on our flight, and the previous one, not to serve nuts. We were given a special boarding pass at the gate that let us board first and clean our seats. Southwest does not allow you to pick your seats, so boarding early let us sit close to, if not beside, one another.

2. Email special.diets@disneyworld.com with your child's specific allergens. You'll receive an email within a couple of days that explains the park's contact numbers, food safety procedures and a list of allergy-friendly foods and ingredients that are available at most of the Disney resorts and some of the parks. Spend some time on the Disney website reviewing menus. Restaurant chefs are adept at modifying or substituting for almost every item they serve. If you're dealing with just one or two of the top eight allergens, it's usually sufficient to speak with a chef upon arriving at the restaurant.

3. If you're dealing with multiple allergies/ intolerances, it's recommended that you fill out and return the email's "Guest Allergy Dietary Request Form." This lets the chefs prepare for your visit, and you do not have to contact the restaurant individually. Disney's parks are also great at meeting diabetic and gluten-free diets with advance notice.

We like to have flexibility when we travel, so I often called restaurants the night before or morning of to make reservations. I also purchased an app of Disney menus to give us pointers on the go.

With such last-minute arrangements, especially during high-traffic weeks like spring break, you may not get your first choice or preferred time. But our needs were met easily during the offseason.

Ask to speak with the chef upon arrival. At Epcot's Coral Reef restaurant, the head chef went over our allergens and suggested safe options. My kids were offered grilled chicken prepared in a separate area with olive oil, salt and pepper; apples, fries and dairy-free Tofutti vanilla ice cream with sprinkles.

Ty, 11, was ecstatic, and Talia, 5, could have her first "real" ciabatta bread (which is dairy-, egg- and nut-free) at a restaurant. On another day, we visited a fast-food restaurant at the Magic Kingdom. Quick-service restaurants in Disney have a notebook by the counter with ingredient lists. We settled on hot dogs (without a bun for Talia), fries and a drink.

Around the corner at the Main Street Bakery and throughout the Disney parks, there was an assortment of allergen-friendly cookies and soy milks. (Divvies cookies are no longer offered in the parks.)

4. Though it is discouraged unless you have food allergies, we also brought bottled water, safe popcorn and pretzels, along with wipes, hand sanitizer and our emergency medicines.

Cathleen Lemoine's 5-year-old son, Evan, is allergic to peanuts, tree nuts, fish, eggs, sesame and green peas. She could not have been more pleased with their experience at Disney, which included custom-made Mickey Mouse ear-shaped pancakes at one of the character meals.

"We ate at quick service restaurants and sit-down meals," she says. "I can't say enough good things about how Disney handled food allergies."

Jeff Reynolds, an Atlanta father whose daughter is severely allergic to milk, started the allergyfreemouse.com website last year. He agrees that Disney is one of the most accommodating places he's ever visited. "They're great at what they do, and they take it seriously," he says.

You can find great tips for navigating food allergies on his website, along with menu suggestions and tips at other sites such as allears.net and allergyeats.com/disney.

Joyce Clark Hicks can be reached at joyce4indy@gmail.com.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Where food dreams come true."

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