the happiest place on earth

Disneyland

This was a most mediocre and tremendous meal.

It wasn’t locally sourced, grass-fed beef. I’m sure the guacamole came out of a tub. The beans were sort of spongy, the tortillas lukewarm. That pre-grated cheese didn’t taste like much. The taco buffet we make at home on Thursday nights has pickled radishes, slow-braised carnitas, and crunchy cabbage for the shells.

However, I’ll never forget this meal. I’m so very grateful for it.

You see, we ate this lunch at Disneyland, back in February. After we finished the official part of our potluck road trip tour, we spent a couple of days in Claremont, the town where I grew up. Thanks to our good friend Emily, we had a place to stay and friends with whom to laugh late into the night. It was a wonderful way to unwind from the drive down California, the public appearances, and all that we learned. But really, for Lucy, this was the only stop worth making. She knew that as soon as we were done with the tour, we were going to Disneyland.

Having grown up in Claremont, I visited Disneyland at least two or three times a year. My family and I went every August for my birthday, every January for my brother’s birthday, and sometimes at least once more. My brother and I called it D-Day! and the drive from Claremont to Anaheim always took an agonizing long time. We were convinced that every car on that freeway was headed toward Disneyland and they were all going to ride Pirates of the Caribbean before we could arrive.

(Memory is such a funny creature. When we were trying to figure out what time to leave for Disneyland the next day, I told him the drive from Claremont is at least two hours. Turns out it’s about 35 minutes. But man, it sure felt longer when I was a kid.)

A few months before, in a fit of nostalgia, I told Lucy childhood stories about the rides at Disneyland. Her eyes went wide. Already deep in princess mania, Lu wanted to see this magic place where Peter Pan and Sleeping Beauty and the Mad Hatter hung out in one place together. Thanks to the internet, I could show her parades and rides and character breakfasts. After that? Forget about it. She was never going to forget about it. We knew this was the last trip we were taking together, just the three of us, since Desmond would be arriving soon. Danny and I saved up enough money to make a day of it at Disneyland.

Look, I know it’s easy to knock Disneyland, and all things Disney, since it’s such a megalith of money-making, mesmerizing power. But I love that place. And the movies, which have been a source of stories for Lucy. She watched The Princess and the Frog and talked about making gumbo and beignets for months. So we figured out gluten-free beignets for her. Her brief spate of fixation on Cinderella made her ask her grandmother if she could mop the garage floor when we visited. (And she did it.) “I have to do my chores, just like Cinderella and Snow White!” she’d say to us. Go right ahead and watch that movie again, kid! I will always adore the Toy Story movies. But I’m very glad we didn’t watch Frozen until after that trip, since there are reports of four-hour lines to meet Elsa and Anna at Disneyland now. (By the way, do the songs from that movie ever leave your head?)

I had not visited Disneyland since I was in my early 20s, so as excited as I was to share the space with Lucy — and with Danny, who had never been before — I felt a little trepidation in my chest. What if it was shabby and crass, not the place I remembered as a kid?

No need to worry. It was a glorious day.

What struck me, as an adult, watching it through the eyes of my child, is this: Disneyland is a place of service. Every person who works there is helpful and cheerful. Every flower is bright, all the wilting ones dead-headed. The lines are organized, the characters are happy to listen to chattering children on their knee, and the entire park is set up to make each person’s day as free of care as possible. It’s about more than money. It’s a place determined to serve.

It’s this dedication to the people visiting that makes Disneyland the best place to be gluten-free.

People told me about this before we visited. Folks on Twitter and Facebook raved about the care the staff at Disney take to feed people with food allergies and celiac. This page explains the steps they take to ensure everyone can eat safely. Still, seeing it in action was something else.

Lu romped through the park, spinning on the teacups ride, skipping joyfully through Fantasyland, and taking it all in. But about 2 pm, she flagged. We were nosediving into Hungry Grumpy land, fast. We stopped at a generic Mexican place in California Adventure to see what we could eat. When we ordered, we told the server we were both celiac and needed to eat gluten-free. He sent for the chef.

At each restaurant or place to buy food in Disneyland, the head chef comes out to greet the customers when the staff is informed of a food allergy. (In our case, an autoimmune disorder.) The chef at this Mexican place asked us about any other food allergies or intolerances. She listened, seriously. She told us the dishes that would be easiest for them to make for us, gluten-free. And she wrote it all down. I sat down with Lucy, keeping her distracted from the wait for food with princess stories. Danny stood near the kitchen and watched. He watched the woman who had helped us personally supervise every ingredient being cooked, making sure that there was no cross-contamination in every single step. When this tray was set before me, I wanted to cry. This place I had loved so well as a kid? It fed me and my child with grace and compassion.

I don’t know why every food service establishment cannot be like this. There’s been a spate of nasty jokes and condemning stories about folks with gluten intolerance lately. Ironic, since May is Celiac Awareness month. But every time I hear something like this, I think of the experience we had at Disneyland. If your first impulse is to make fun of someone who says she has to be gluten-free? If, as a chef or server, you doubt the people you are feeding and think about putting flour in their food just to show they are faking it? Why are you doing this job? If you are in food service, your job is all about service, with food. Your job is to feed people. Not quickly or cheaply or condescendingly. Your job is to feed people, safely. And if you’re good, you’re feeding them with love. Taking care of someone who has food allergies or intolerances, so we don’t get sick — that’s a form of love.

If you’re making fun of people who have to be gluten-free, the joke is really on you. You’re not doing your work.

At dinner, we had the same gracious experience as we did at lunch. We went to a cafe on Main Street, and grabbed one of the last tables outside. Danny ran to Space Mountain while Lucy and I waited for the parade. We ordered burgers and fries, with cherry Cokes. This isn’t how we normally eat but this was a special occasion. We were at Disneyland, after all. I ordered for us and once again, the head chef came to talk to us. She was so kind, so caring, and clearly had such a clear protocol of how to take care of us that I actually did start to cry this time. “I’m sorry,” I said. “This is sort of weird to be crying, but I came here so many times as a child. To have you guys understand and take care of us like this? It’s just really wonderful.”

She smiled. I’m sure she has seen it before. She took our order inside and cooked it up herself. Lucy and I stood at the gate of the white picket fence in front of the cafe, waiting. I swung her onto my shoulders and felt her dance when she heard the music starting. She bounced up and down, shouting out the name of every character she recognized as they passed us. It felt the same as it did when I sat on the curb in the late 1970s, watching the Main Street Electrical parade pass before more. All that happiness and awe and warm nights and the joy, just joy, of being in that place. And now, I was sharing it with her.

Danny came back just in time for food. We all shared a meal and chattered happily together. Lucy and I ate safely. We didn’t worry for a moment. It couldn’t have been more normal and extraordinary at the same time.

Man, that burger and fries tasted good.

Thank you, Disneyland, for doing it right.

And the rest of America? Catch up.