by Hannah Macfarlane
Some people visit theme parks to go on the rides, others go to investigate the food. For Hannah Macfarlane, her winter vacation presented an opportunity for both. Keep reading to explore Orlando’s famous parks as told through meals and learn some tips for eating your way to a great vacation .
Over winter break, my mom and I headed to Orlando for four days of theme park hopping: two days at Walt Disney World and two days at Universal Studios. We walked more than forty miles, rode nearly every roller coaster designed for people over the age of six, and took lots of awkward selfies so our family at home in the Northeast could envy the beautiful weather. And because I am a food-loving nutrition student, I made it my mission to find the healthiest, most satisfying theme park food I could.
Quick disclaimer: if you want to eat cheeseburgers, churros, and cotton candy while you’re on vacation (or not), go for it! No food is bad food, ESPECIALLY when you’re in the Happiest Place on Earth™. For me, eating balanced meals was important because I have a sensitive stomach and experience acid reflux, so my goal was to find foods that wouldn’t make me feel sick while riding roller coasters that made me feel sick. Isn’t that great logic?
We had originally planned to do one day at Disney and two at Universal, but thanks to some last minute inspiration and a free flight change from Delta, we ended up arriving in Orlando a day early. That meant more time for rides, and more food to eat! Before we checked into our hotel, we stopped by the supermarket (Publix, obviously) to pick up some food and local beer for our mini fridge. Breakfast ended up being the one meal that stayed consistent all week: fresh berries with plain Greek yogurt and chocolate granola, and whatever coffee we could find. I referred to my breakfast as “room service,” but really it was my wonderful mother waiting on me so I could sleep in. She’s a saint.
We officially began our adventure in the utopia that is Magic Kingdom. I’d downloaded the Disney World app the previous week and looked at the menus about 17 times each, so I knew I wanted to drag my mom to Columbia Harbour House for lunch. I ordered the Grilled Salmon; she had the Broccoli Peppercorn Salad. The food was good, but the best part of the meal was making a new friend in the form of a flight attendant from Seattle who had run the “Dopey Challenge” the previous weekend—a 5K, 10K, half marathon, and full marathon in sequential days. I discovered that not only are there obsessed Disney World fans and obsessed runners, there are a ton of people out there who are both. Personally, I prefer to get my physical activity in by skipping from ride to ride, but to each their own.
For dinner, we swung by the Pecos Bill Tall Tale Inn, located in the Frontier Land area. I went for the tacos, but quickly fell in love when I discovered the UNLIMITED GUACAMOLE. Yes, you read that right. After you order your food—I got a Taco Trio with Seasoned Ground Beef, Seasoned Chicken, and Spicy Breaded Cauliflower topped with 5-spice Yogurt and Pineapple Salsa – you head to the toppings bar for all the fixin’s. I am not kidding when I say I helped myself to a full cup of guacamole, or $10 worth if we’re talking in Chipotle terms.
This was our longest day; we were in the parks from 8 am (pre-rope drop for those in the know) to 11 pm. Lunch was this bowl from Satu’li Canteen in the new Pandora section of Animal Kingdom, and it was DELICIOUS. I hadn’t decided what to eat until I walked past the restaurant and scoped out the menu (I spent a lot of time looking at menus, clearly). As soon as I saw it was a build-your-own-bowl place, I knew I had to get that food in my belly. I would have gone back for dinner but we were in Epcot by that point. Go to Pandora for the food, stay to watch people suffer through the ridiculously long lines for the Avatar Flight of Passage ride.
Our second park dinner was our only real sit-down meal during the four days of park hopping. One of my mom’s best friends and her daughter had planned a trip to Disney at the same time, so we met up at Restaurant Marrakesh in the World Showcase. My mom and I ordered two dishes—Roast Lamb Meshoui and Shish Kebab—and swapped halfway through so we could try both. Honestly, the best part of the World Showcase is the food—you can try food from all around the world in one place!
As much as I love Disney (and I do LOVE Disney), I was most excited to visit Universal for one reason only: the Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I don’t love being surrounded by hordes of people, but I’m happy to deal with crowds of Muggles trying to catch a photo of the Gringotts dragon mid-fire breath.
The food at Universal Studios is generally pretty limited, making me wish there were house elves on hand to cook up our favorite foods. When you search the park’s website for “healthy options” in the two main parks you get one result, and it costs $50 for an adult. That said, it’s the Marvel meet-and-greet restaurant, so you may get to hang out with Thor.
I made the rookie mistake of winging lunch that day, and I ended up struggling to find something that met my requirements (read: not a burger and fries) while fighting through my “hanger.” We finally ended up at Bumblebee Man’s Taco Truck for—you guessed it—more tacos. Sadly, the guacamole there was NOT unlimited, but I did enjoy the Korean beef. Universal closed at the non-magical hour of 7 pm, so we didn’t waste time getting dinner at the park. Why eat when you can ride the Hulk again and again?
After my lunchtime annoyance of the previous day, I had already decided to visit Fire Eater’s Grill for our final lunch. The food wasn’t the best, but my gyro came with a side of veggies (carrots and celery sticks) and hummus. Not too shabby! Disappointingly, there were no fire eaters to be found.
I only got ice cream once during our four days in the park, but this cup from Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour* was totally worth the wait. As a huge Harry Potter fan, just having the experience of eating ice cream in Diagon Alley would have been enough for me; this ice cream also happened to be incredibly tasty. My mom and I ordered separately and somehow both ended up with salted caramel blondie and clotted cream. Accio deliciousness!
After picking up souvenirs at Wiseacre’s Wizarding Equipment, we headed back to Hogsmeade only to discover that the park closed at 6 pm. I didn’t get to ride Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey again, but we did have extra time to get tasty Ethiopian food for dinner near our hotel.
Overall, I was pretty satisfied with the food I found at both parks, especially Disney World. It definitely takes some effort and planning, but there are vegetables to be found! Most importantly, I had a blast.
- Do breakfast/coffee in the hotel so you’re in a good mood by the time you reach the park. Those crowds can be brutal and you don’t want to face them when you’re hangry (trust me on that one).
- Bring snacks. I had plenty of dried mango in my bag so that I could raise my blood sugar whenever I felt myself getting cranky (see above). We also had pretzels, cheese crackers, beef jerky, nuts, and granola bars—snacking is a serious business for us!
- Plan ahead. This is especially true if you have any kind of dietary restrictions. I’m just picky, but I still got a little hangry (again, see above) on the one day I didn’t pick a lunch spot ahead of time. (Sorry, Mom!)
- Look into the meal plans. We didn’t do this, but both Disney and Universal offer flat rate meal plans that are accepted at many on-site dining locations. As a bonus, you’ll feel like a freshman again!
Hannah Macfarlane is a second year student in the Nutrition Interventions, Communication, and Behavior Change program. Her favorite activities include re-reading Harry Potter, snacking, and pretending to be a kid again.