My daughter, Sasha, was 4 years old when she was diagnosed with Celiac disease. Prior to then, I’d heard about celiac and knew it had something to do with not being able to eat gluten, but that was it. After her diagnosis, I became an expert — real fast.
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects approximately 1 in 133 Americans. People with Celiac must avoid gluten. Even the slightest amount of gluten can trigger an immune system reaction and cause damage to the small intestine.
So how can I take one of my favorite people (Sasha) to one of my favorite places (Universal Orlando Resort)? The answer is, “pretty easily.”
“I can’t believe this is real.”
Those were the first words out of Sasha’s mouth as she sat at a table at Thunder Falls Terrace at Universal Islands of Adventure. It was a gorgeous summer day and Sasha, along with her brother, Jonah, my wife, Juliana, and myself were about to have the greatest Discover Universal blog assignment ever: tasting gluten sensitive food.
WRITER’S NOTE: While all the food we were about to eat was gluten sensitive, these dishes are not only for guests with Celiac. This is simply delicious food that just also happens to accommodate guests with Celiac.
On this day, which, incidentally, will go down in Bloom lore as “one of the most awesome days ever,” we were joined by Nicole Martino, nutritionist for Universal Orlando Resort and several incredible chefs, such as Chef Jonathan Rodriguez and Chef Antwan Dickerson.
Having Nicole spend the day with us was amazing. As Sasha ate her way through delicious bite after delicious bite of Celiac-prepared offerings, I had the chance to learn more about Nicole, her background, and how she helps ensure Universal Orlando Resorts can accommodate guests with Celiac Disease.
With a degree in Culinary Arts, Nutrition, and Hospitality Management, Nicole knows her stuff. “I wanted to come to Universal to help guests navigate allergies and dietary restrictions on a larger scale,” Nicole says. “This is as large as it gets.”
Nicole explains that Universal is well-equipped to accommodate guests with Celiac.
“Key select team members in our venues are allergy trained. They know all the safety procedures and protocols to ensure guests with Celiac, among other allergies or dietary restrictions, can have peace of mind when it comes to eating at our resort.”
Nicole continues, “we can accommodate Celiac anywhere on property so when you walk into a restaurant, be sure to tell your server that it’s Celiac and they will work to provide you with a delicious and safe experience.”
Stop 1: Thunder Falls Terrace
So here we are at Thunder Falls Terrace. Sasha couldn’t decide what was more thrilling — the Jurassic Park River Adventure or the food in front of her!”
The Roasted Pernil Platter
A pretty generous portion of slow-roasted pork with onions, black beans, cilantro rice, and sweet plantains. Ooooh, those sweet plantains.
Chorizo with black beans, cilantro rice, cotija cheese, salsa, and more of those amazing sweet plantains.
Chicken & Ribs Platter
Rotisserie chicken. Mango BBQ glazed ribs. Along with some roasted corn and really nicely seasoned potatoes.
Hang on. There was a lot of food on the table. I had to ask Nicole.
“All of this is okay for Sasha?”
“Everything at Thunder Falls Terrace is a non-gluten-containing item, with the exception of the desserts,” said Nicole. “The food is safe for guests with Celiac.”
As Sasha’s eyes got wider—and her stomach fuller—from the unbelievable spread in front of her, Nicole told me more about Universal Orlando Resort’s approach to ensuring guests with Celiac can eat safely.
“It’s all about understanding the ingredients in every dish and understanding cross-contamination,” Nicole says. “I validate every ingredient and every recipe so we are completely confident in what we are offering our guests and confident in how to accommodate for a variety of different dietary restrictions.”
Stop 2: Three Broomsticks
Yes, gluten sensitive dining does exist in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter and, yes, it is magically wonderful.
“I can’t stress this enough,” Nicole says. “Always tell a team member that it’s Celiac and they can adjust ingredients as necessary. For example, for Sasha, they made the ribs without the BBQ sauce because the sauce is not free from gluten. It’s just about talking to a team member and they will take care of you.”
While Universal Orlando Resort does offer mobile food ordering across the destination, Nicole advocates for guests with dietary restrictions to order in-person instead.
“The mobile app is easy to use but I always recommend that guests with Celiac or any dietary restriction go to the venue and speak to a team member in person.”
Back to Sasha and The Great Feast, which was brought to our table by Chef Antwan Dickerson. If you’ve never seen The Great Feast, it’s a sight to behold.
The Great Feast
A family-portioned feast, this meal includes rotisserie smoked chicken, spareribs, corn on the cob, and roasted potatoes. This delicious order also comes with a fresh garden salad. The Great Feast is a platter for four and the Blooms are happy to dive in.
What better way to enjoy this meal? With a complementary Butterbeer, of course. All varieties of which (Cold, Frozen, Hot, Dairy-Free) are gluten sensitive for a Celiac diet.
Sasha’s favorite, by the way? Frozen.
Stop 3: Lombard’s Seafood Grill
We ventured out to Universal Studios Florida and over to Lombard’s Seafood Grill. It’s here that I had the pleasure of speaking to head chef Robert Walter who shared some advice for guests with Celiac.
“All of our menus are online,” says Chef Walter. “When you come into Lombard’s Seafood Grill, I’ll ask you what you have in mind and I’ll see what I can create for you.”
Cioppino Ocean Bowl
This is like a seafood lover’s dream. Mussels, calamari, littleneck clams, Atlantic cod, and jumbo shrimp in a tomato fennel broth with rosemary.
Alfredo, shaved Parmesan, and sautéed black tiger shrimp made this dish a big hit with Sasha. “The flavors are amazing,” she says more than once.
Catch of the Day
The catch of the day was salmon, pan seared with olive oil and topped with salt and butter.
San Francisco Cobb Salad
One of the biggest hits from the tasting was the San Francisco Cobb Salad. With chopped mixed greens, avocado, bacon, carrots, a hard-boiled egg, blue cheese crumbles and more, this classic salad was both delicious and filling.
What if your younger ones are not as adventurous as Sasha? No problem.
Chef Walter is all about accommodating.
“Just talk to us,” Chef Walter says again. “We can do a kids burger, fingerling potatoes, baked fish and chips, and so much more. All gluten sensitive.”
Stop 4: Bigfire
But just like there’s always room for ice cream (a Bloom mantra), Sasha was about to find out that there’s always room for Bigfire.
Wood Charred Brussels Sprouts
Chef Aaron Hiner starts out the tasting with Wood Charred Brussels Sprouts with shishito peppers over toasted almond smear and topped with micro arugula.
“We make almost everything in house here,” said Chef Hiner. “If you tell us you have Celiac, we’re extremely well-versed in making gluten sensitive food and can tailor your meal to meet your needs.”
Wait. What is this? Sasha is eating Brussels Sprouts?!?
“Oh my gosh! These are amazing!”
What can I say? It’s Filet Mignon as only Bigfire can prepare it. Delicious.
Perfectly prepared with fire-grilled seasonal vegetables, crispy smashed potatoes, and tarragon tartar sauce.
Skillet Baked Chocolate Cake
This flourless chocolate cake should go on the Mount Rushmore of greatest desserts.
“OK, I was wrong. I don’t care how full I am. This is my favorite place!”
Sasha might’ve been referring to Bigfire (and chocolate cake) but I can’t help but reflect on this experience.
Watching Sasha taste (and love) a variety of different, delicious foods that were free from gluten and safe for Celiac? Knowing that guests like Sasha — and millions of others with Celiac — can come to this destination and eat without worry? Having team members like Nicole Martino, Chef Hiner, Chef Walter, Chef Rodriguez, and Chef Dickerson and others trained in allergy protocols to keep guests safe?
I’m feeling pretty emotional.
This wasn’t a day where everybody in the family ordered their own dishes. This was an experience where everything we ate was loved by all and shared by all. Everything was safe for Sasha and everything was delicious.
So while Sasha refers to Bigfire and says, “this is my favorite place!,” I’m choking back a few tears as I look out the window and see the Universal globe.
Mine too, Sasha.
Some final advice
As you can see, Universal Orlando Resort is expertly trained in accommodating guests with Celiac Disease, among other dietary restrictions. In fact, most menus have graphic icons to indicate different allergies and dietary restrictions. Here are some key pieces of advice, however, to remember from Nicole.
“When you’re ordering, always notify a team member that you have Celiac and they will accommodate you. Also, I advise guests to always order in person rather than use the mobile app for ordering. It’s better to speak to somebody in person. And finally, if you have any questions at all prior to your trip, please e-mail email@example.com.”
Are you a guest with Celiac or on a gluten-sensitive diet? I’d love to hear from you. What are some of your go-to spots at Universal Orlando Resort and what are some of your favorite dishes?