A Vegetarian at Mickey’s Table Part I

How we learned to stop worrying and love the mouse!

by Susan Shumaker and Than Saffel

authors of Vegetarian Walt Disney World and Greater Orlando!

This is the first of a two-part series on Dining Vegetarian at WDW.

This article appeared in the August 25, 2000, issue of ALL EARS.

Editor's Note: This story/information was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all current rates, information and other details before planning your trip.

We can do a whole vegetarian dinner from start to finish. I can take you through five courses, if you'd like. There are so many things you could do here that you could have a table of six vegetarians, and I could feed you all different courses. We are the king of vegetarians!

Your waiter's words ring in your ears as he hustles off to get you a glass of wine, and you take a moment to look around.

Fifteen floors in the sky, you notice the view first: a breathtaking panorama of earth and sky through clear plate glass. You manage to pull your gaze from the window and, slowly, you begin to appreciate the sophisticated style of the room itself. Art Deco symmetries remind you of a 1930s ocean liner; a riot of bold forms–square wall panels, circular windows, and tall vases of brushed aluminum–lend an urbane, avant-garde polish.

The crowd this evening is a surprising mix of professional couples, groups of friends out to toast the week's end, and entire families with kids in tow. You order your meal and–at your waiter's suggestion–you take an impromptu tour of the open, "on-stage" kitchen, where sushi counters, pastry stations, and the huge oak-fired grill are abuzz with activity.

Colorful designs, inspired by the abstractions of Klee and Kandinsky, are repeated in the upholstery, the carpets, and the vest of the waiter who returns you to your seat and delivers the first course. If God is in the details, this meal should be divine. And it is.

Chef Clifford Pleau's chilled Gazpacho, spiked with vinegar and topped with fresh guacamole, sharpens your appetite for the savory Brick Oven Flatbread, smothered in grilled mushrooms, roasted garlic, caramelized red onions, and feta cheese. And your companion's Avocado and Vegetable Roll is by far the most delectable sushi you've ever eaten.

You might be content to stop there–and maybe you should–but entrées like Mesquite Roasted Tofu and Summer Vegetable Risotto sound awfully good… And then there's Vegetarian Unplugged: a tempting medley of vegetarian and vegan side dishes arranged, tapas-like, in little bowls on a platter.

As you sip after-dinner drinks, the lights dim and all eyes turn toward the wall of plate glass facing west. Fireworks illuminate the night sky, and uplifting music, in synch with the colorful explosions, is piped into the restaurant.

There aren't many places in the world where food, service, and atmosphere combine to deliver a truly magical experience.

Where could you be? On the banks of the Seine? In the heart of Manhattan? Perhaps you've died and gone to heaven.


You're at Walt Disney World!

With this passage, we began our new guide book, Vegetarian Walt Disney World and Greater Orlando. The scene at the California Grill, high atop the Disney's Contemporary Resort, would have been nearly unthinkable 28 years ago when the park first opened its doors to the public. But today, thanks to Disney's unflagging commitment to the guest experience, it's possible to have a world-class vegetarian meal, complete with impeccable service in a beautiful atmosphere, every night of the week.

The change in Disney's attitude toward vegetarian dining is due in no small part to the dining revolution masterminded by WDW's Vice President of Food and Beverage, Dieter Hannig.

Hannig and his staff have undertaken the awesome task of making Walt Disney World a dining destination to rival the world's great resorts–while ensuring that hungry toddlers, weary parents, picky teenagers, and people with esoteric diets can all find some delightful culinary treat as they traipse across 7,000 acres of theme parks and resorts.

It's a mammoth undertaking, but if anyone is up to the task, it's Hannig. You might even say Hannig–a self-described "part-time vegetarian"–is obsessed with the challenge before him. One can easily picture him arguing passionately on behalf of a tub of frozen yogurt, his thick German accent liberally sprinkled with American idioms, his expressive eyes widening meaningfully as he drives home each point. Flavor. Freshness. Quality. The Guest Experience.

As he talks, Hannig's small marathon runner's frame seems enlarged by the power of his convictions. "It's all about great people and talent," he says. "You put a great chef in a restaurant, you 'paint the big picture' of what the guest experience should be, and you tell them, 'That's your restaurant. Go with it!' The food and beverage teams make your idea better, the chefs make their guests happy, and they get the credit and the recognition for a job well done."

This unique approach has ushered in a sea change in the quality of food throughout the property, from snack bars to resort dining rooms. "Ten years ago, there wasn't much to talk about," concurs Franz Kranzfelder, Manager of Menu Development and Culinary Standards. "But now we have about 15 top chefs on Disney property, with great talents. The whole mentality about leadership has changed. We no longer have executive chefs, we have working chefs–you'll see them in the kitchen on a daily basis. They are passionately involved in cooking.

That was a big change for this company. We don't have kitchen generals anymore, we have missionaries: people who are standing up for what they believe in."

Vegetarian Options at Walt Disney World

Despite Hannig's revolution, many people who haven't visited Walt Disney World in recent years still think of it as a big expensive carnival, with expensive carnival food: popcorn, cokes, burgers, and hot dogs. To a certain extent, they're right, especially in the World's four theme parks where the emphasis is on portability, economy (the Disney version), and the satisfaction of the Vacationing Hordes. But to merely offer one type of food–at one set of price points–to the bewildering melting pot of tastes that makes up Walt Disney World's clientele would be missing a tremendous opportunity, and not just in terms of sales.

Hannig elaborates: "The point is to change the guests' perceptions so that, all of the sudden, they go to a quick service operation, and Hey! There is a freshly tossed salad! And it's not prepackaged, and chilled. And suddenly you have a Caesar Salad which is, like, edible, and you say, 'Ooo! That's pleasantly surprising!'"

To delight and surprise their guests interested in healthful dining options, Dieter Hannig and his band of menu designers have come up with an astonishing array of choices.

Here's what to expect at Disney Food Carts and Snack Shops

The cuisine offered by the food carts and snack shops you see all over the theme parks is definitely closer to Food Court than Carnival. You can't turn a corner without running into one of these thirst slakers and pang assuagers, selling spring water, soft drinks, cappuccino, cookies, fruit, popcorn, nuts, and frozen delights, in addition to decidedly non-vegetarian items.

For the most part the carts and snack shops are veg-friendly, if you ignore the hot dog stands. However, if you have a question about the fare offered at a cart (i.e., are any of the cookies offered vegan?), you might not be able to get a definitive answer.

Snack shops, on the other hand, usually offer a wider range of goods and often keep ingredient lists on hand for ready reference. We do our best to keep our info on these up to date in Vegetarian Walt Disney World and Greater Orlando, but–if you are concerned about a particular item–be sure to ask to see the ingredient list.

Read A Vegetarian at Mickey's Table, Part II!