Today, theme park restaurants are offering gluten-free, vegetarian, and food allergy sensitive menu choices for those with special diets, as well as anyone watching their weight. In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control estimated that 39.8% of American adults and 18.5% of American children were obese. Since more than 335 million Americans visit a theme park annually, it’s great to know the standard “junk food” fare we ate as kids isn’t the only thing being served at meal time.
If you are going to several of the more forward-thinking theme parks, you can stay on your diet and find many options for family members with food restrictions. Here are some of our favorite “healthy” themepark restaurants, as well as guidelines for finding the best food choices for your family.
You Can Eat Well & Diet at Theme Parks
Moms traveling with a family member with special dietary needs know you must be your own advocate and be reasonable in your expectations. If you have a vegetarian, gluten-averse kid with a milk allergy on a low-fat diet, you may not find food to fit those particular needs. But if you’re helping family members battle obesity, there are now healthy, nutritious options at even the fastest of fast food eateries. It’s not always easy to find them, and salads may cost more than chicken nuggets but remember — you’re investing in a lifetime of good health. If you’re into pre-planning, search the web to read the menus at many of the big themepark restaurants.
Regardless of preparation, keep in mind that packing nutritious snacks is a good idea for everyone, regardless of age or weight. Yogurt, granola bars, fresh fruit, smoothies and baked chips are good options to keep hungry kids healthy. Many of these snack foods are now available at the major theme parks.
Coping with Food Allergies at Major Theme Parks
In Florida and California, both Universal and Disney allow visitors with food allergies or intolerances to bring their own food; just tell the person doing bag check when you enter.
This is more great news, because while you can find gluten-free food, you may not find the exact food your gluten-averse child wants. Plan to pack nutritious and suitable meals. Bring along a sandwich on gluten-free bread, for example, or a bagel with sun butter if your child has a peanut allergy.
Health and nutrition specialists at Consumer Search shared these tips with FTF: “To insure your family has enough energy to last through the day, make sure your meals contain protein (e.g. chicken breast, hot dog, hamburger, deli meat, yogurt), carbohydrates (bread, veggies, fruit) and some fat (fat in meat and dairy, mayo). This will help prevent you from snacking on things like cotton candy because everyone is hungry, and the cart is right in front of you.”
Disneyworld and Disney Parks Accommodate Dietary Needs
The Disney theme parks use the “Disney Check” (formerly known as Mickey Check) as a symbol on real and online menus to guide kids — with as little nudging as possible — to make healthful choices. Mickey’s yellow insignia appears next to nutritious items that meet Disney’s nutritional guidelines.
Disney theme parks‘ table-service, many of the quick service and the buffets accommodate guests’ special dining needs if they fall into the category the park calls “Common Food Allergies.” These are defined as: gluten or wheat; shellfish; soy; lactose or dairy; peanuts; tree nuts; fish; eggs; and corn.
Families will also see no sugar added, low fat, low sodium or vegetarian options at most restaurants, and requests for these types of meals require no advance notice. Disney recommends alerting the restaurant to food allergies and intolerances when making a reservation. You can also speak to a chef or a manager on arrival to request special foods or ask about ingredients.
Choices for Healthy, Allergy-Free Dining at Disneyworld
Disney makes an effort to appeal to a broad base of customers by blending healthier options with classic kids’ fare. For example, the kid’s menu at Restaurantosaurus offers a healthy grilled chicken salad with berries and feta cheese, as well as a black bean burger with avocado sauce, and a choice of apple slices or french fries.
Disney Check meals are available at many dining locations and include an Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly pouch, and a turkey wrap. These options come with grapes, carrot sticks, and a choice of a small low-fat milk, or a bottle of water.
Universal Studios & Islands of Adventure Promote Healthy Eating
Universal theme parks are able to accommodate special dining requests at all facilities and at Orlando’s Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, for example, carts sell fresh fruit as a refreshing treat.
If you are spending the day visiting both parks, go to City Walk, Universal’s commercial zone, for lunch. You will find several quick service places, including Moe’s Southwest Grill, where you can have a burriot bowl, healthy vegetarian (or not) lunch.
You can order a burrito with over 1,000 calories, but if you choose the very filling junior size, and don’t add sour cream or bacon, you can get a burrito for half of the calories of its larger counterpart. Cheese and sour cream are high calorie additions, but you get a lot of flavor from jalapenos, pico de gallo and grilled onions, with very few additional calories. You can even get it all on a whole grain tortilla.
If you need a gluten-free and tasty Southwestern meal, get the same ingredients in a rice bowl with no tortilla.
This is still fast food, high in sodium, but it is one of the better choices at Universal. At all outlets, note that food is cooked with trans-fat-free oil, and all kid’s meals come with fruit.
Prepare Online to Eat Healthy at Hershey Park
Hershey Park in Hersey, Pennsylvania, simplifies feeding the family with special dietary needs via an online guide. Their site has a list of the park’s many restaurants and food carts with complete menus, and each listing notes ingredients and potential allergens for all items.
Families who purchase an all-day Dining Deal can use it at 10 restaurants serving a variety of items. Note that, aside from a single sealed bottle of water, guests may not enter with outside food. Designated picnicking areas are found near the restrooms in the parking lot of Hersheypark Stadium, on the patio of Hersheypark Arena, and in Tram Circle. The picnic tables allow table-top grills, and lockers are available in the west parking lot for cooler storage.
Healthier Eating Stops in Hersheypark
Here are some of our favorite healthy dining options at Hersheypark. At Founder’s Way, Founder’s Kitchen comes to the aid of vegetarians with their blackbean burger option. Check out the gluten-free, nut-free and dairy-free options. Hersheypark Place has a variety of healthy choices (including vegetarian options) such as the black bean burger; fruits, nuts, and berries salad; grilled chicken and roasted vegetable flatbread pizza.
Families with Kosher dining needs can head to the Central PA Kosher Mart for Kosher-friendly food. It has a wide variety kosher-friendly healthy and vegetarian options.
You may want to allow time while in Kissing Tower Hill for a real meal at Gourmet Grill, which has vegetarian options with a Mexican flare. This air-conditioned cafe also has menu items free of gluten, nuts and dairy.
BYOF: Bring Food to Six Flags if you have Special Needs
There’s a blanket ban on outside food and drinks at the 17 fun Six Flags amusement parks.
They make exceptions, however, for family members with special dietary needs or food allergies. Plan ahead to feed all your brood a healthy theme park meal. Upon arrival at the park, bring outside food containers to either park security or guest relations where they will mark and date the food as proof of approval for park entry.
Various locations do have healthy food options, such as salads, fresh fruit, smoothies, and garden burgers.
Healthy Picks at Six Flags Parks
In New Jersey at Six Flags Great Adventure, Hurricane Harbor or Wild Safari, nutritious food choices range from giant turkey legs to sushi. From buble tea and sushi at Ichiban Teahouse to gluten-free and vegetarian fare at Go Fresh Express, and salads at Granny’s Country Kitchen, there are many healthy and tasty choices.
The Six Flags parks in upstate New York include Great Escape & Splashwater Kingdom, and the Great Escape Lodge & Indoor Waterpark. At these parks, each family member is allowed to carry in one sealed bottle. The selection at Timbertown Cafe and Marketplace includes Grab and Go salads, hummus and pita chips, fruit salad, trail mix and apple wedges. Macho Nacho serves rice bowls as well as tacos, and Shaved Ice Carts offer a cold alternative to dairy.
Six Flags Over Texas and Hurricane Harbor in Arlington have picnic tables located just outside of the park for home-brought food.
SeaWorld is Getting on Board with Health Trends
Throughout their three nationwide marinelife locations — Orlando, San Antonio and San Diego, the SeaWorld theme parks advertise few of their healthier dining options. The Busch Gardens parks in Tampa and Williamsburg, Virginia fare better.
All of the parks offer allergen-friendly prepackaged items for special dietary needs, and their websites specify what is sold. Allergen information cards are also available at guest services and main meal locations. These cards provide tips for a safe trip, information on suggested meal locations. Food outlets provide a Chef Card where you can explain your dietary needs and the chef will prepare something suitable.
If your family doesn’t have such specific dietary restrictions, it’s easy to find more healthful dining options at SeaWorld Orlando. Try a Mango Fruit Salad at Mango Joe’s, grilled salmon from Shark’s Underwater Grill (where there’s a dedicated Allergen Friendly Location) or low-fat vegetable chili from Spice Mill, or many other options at Terrace Garden Buffet.
At Busch Gardens Tampa, Serengeti Overlook, open Thursday to Sunday, has trained chefs and full service dining that includes safe options for all dietary needs. Expect spinach salads, a vegetarian tasting entree with kohlrabi and asparagus and more.
The San Antonio park touts Sea Star Market and Cafe as a healthy alternative to standard theme park fare. Among other items, the menu offers a vegetarian Southwest Wrap and garden salad.
Remember! Accommodating Special Dietary Needs Takes Vigilance
Families looking to eat healthy at a theme park should plan ahead. Since most information is available online, with a little research, you can easily determine if the park has a health-conscious option for you.
In general, sites like Healthy Dining Finder are very useful for finding healthy meals that are suitable for vegans and other special diets. Even a restaurant reservation site like the handy OpenTable can be sorted to display restaurants with gluten-free options.
Of course, getting everyone in the party to eat right — just because it’s available — may not be so easy. But a lifetime of healthy eating is a goal you can accomplish together… even at theme parks.
Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.