A sweet lesson at the Magic Kingdom
August 30th, 2011
12:15 PM ET
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Emily Smith is a researcher at CNN. She grew up in Cape Town before moving to the United States and recently wrote a South Africa travel guide for CNN Travel.

I remember my first encounter with American food. It was Disney World, Florida, during the June and July school holiday of 1996. My younger sister Helen and I had been begging my dad to take us for years; he’d wanted to wait until we would remember the experience. Aside from the rides and the characters and the heat, the memory of the food we ate will always stick with me.

My dad comes from a conservative Afrikaans background, it’s similar to Dutch. We had red meat, a starch and a vegetable almost every night for dinner growing up. The only time we ate pasta was when he was out of town on business, and heaven forbid there was fish on the menu until a few years ago.

My mom had a treat cupboard in the kitchen. Really it was more of a shelf. Okay, fine, it was a large Tupperware container - but as a kid it seemed limitless. If we’d eaten all our dinner we could choose something from it. Believe me when I say Helen and I were regular members of the clean plate club for this very reason. We’d run to the cupboard after putting our dishes away and strain our neck to see what our options were for the evening.

Mom was great at stocking it; there would be cookies and chocolates and hard boiled sweets and packets of chips. Sometimes the hardest part was just deciding. The thing was though, everything was individually sized. Chocolate bars were really two blocks of milky heaven wrapped up for one, and chips came in single-serve bags. So, imagine our delight when we got to Disney World and everything was literally bigger and better.

My parents allowed us to have whatever we wanted to eat on that trip, and it felt like we’d died and gone to food heaven. We had French toast for breakfast that I swear was four times the thickness of normal toast, crusted in cinnamon and dripping in sugary sweet syrup. We had ice cream sandwiches shaped like Mickey Mouse for lunch.

I really cannot express how much we ate, and how much we loved it. Our eyes would grow wide and our pupils would flare standing in line at the food court. We’d never seen portions so huge - pancakes the size of dinner plates, cereal bowls that needed two hands to carry. For three glorious days Helen and I stuffed our faces - my dad's term, not mine. We ate and swam and ate and slept and ate and watched cartoons and repeated the cycle with innocent abandon.

But, by the fourth day, something had changed. Standing in line for lunch I remember hearing myself say something I’d never say at lunch time, “Can I just have a piece of fruit?”

We were desperate for fresh vegetables and non-processed food. Sure, the decadence had been mesmerizing and the memory has clearly stuck with me, but I truly learned the value of fresh food.

Next - what happens when you're hungry for the flavors of home? Emily finds a solution that feeds more than just her stomach.

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Filed under: Cuisines • Cultural Identity • Culture • South African

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. Noxious Sunshine

    my parents took us to WDW for the 1st time when I was 3 (1988), we stayed in the Contemporary Resort .. I ordered a Mickey Burger but didnt eat it all so we took it back to the room.. I put it the burger in the safe. Lol such fond memories.. I'd give anything to take my daughter next year...

    August 31, 2011 at 10:59 am |
  2. Rick

    Good to see that I'm not the big ol' mean dad and my wife isn't a big ol' meanie either. We eat at the table and we are a traditional family with traditional menus. We will cook out own authentic Thai, Chinese, Haitian, Canadian and all other foods right here at home. When we do go out the kids want to eat at home or if we eat out they always compare it to our food and prefer what we have at home......I sear my kids are not normal, the only take out they "like" is those chicken wraps at McDonald's.....Eeeessshhh.....LOL Now they will eat some candy, they are not aliens after all...But they do have their 3 fruits a day...Heck they do better than me on that....LOL

    August 31, 2011 at 10:18 am |
  3. Caley

    What you're forgetting is that Disney World is an amusement park, not a regular town or city. It resembles a year round state fair. The food at both venues is 'treat' food, not meant to be a regular diet. Some American food is high calorie, high fat, sugary, etc. A lot of it isn't. It depends on who's cooking or what eatery you go to.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:46 am |
    • Matt

      Wow, insightful....

      August 31, 2011 at 8:52 am |
    • Charles

      You've either never been to WDW or you didn't pay attention. There are fruit stand EVERYWHERE and healthy options on every menu. It is NOT like a state fair. What state do you live in where the state fair has five star dining and fresh fruit stands?

      August 31, 2011 at 9:54 am |
      • Lady Di@Charles

        I vote for option A – for all the reasons you mentioned.

        August 31, 2011 at 9:58 am |
      • Big Tex@ Charles

        The Great State Fair of Texas,of course.

        August 31, 2011 at 10:02 am |
    • Rosie

      You are wrong, Disney is a seperate taxing district and city, not an amusement park.

      August 31, 2011 at 1:20 pm |
      • AleeD@Rosie

        Girlfriend, she is wrong on so many levels it's hard to count 'em all.

        August 31, 2011 at 1:23 pm |
  4. Jerv

    Wonderful! I can't wait for Emilys next installment.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:10 am |
  5. The Murgen

    I've been to DisneyWorld a number of times, spaced over the last 2 decades. The food there has undergone a series of transformations. In the last few years, the Disney crew has really stepped up its lighter, healthier offerings in most of their parks.

    Planning is the key. WIth a meal plan and a proper Disney dining guide, you can generally find light, healthy, and quick items easily.

    August 31, 2011 at 8:05 am |
  6. PBLover

    When I was young my best friend's sister got a part-time job at a donut shop. To her delight, she was told it was store policy to allow employees to eat all the donuts they wanted for free! Of course the first day she literally stuffed herself with donuts. And after that, she could barely stand to look at donuts, let alone eat them. The shrewd owners had learned this over the years, and adopted this policy as the best way to keep employees from literally eating all the profits by pilfering donuts! Sounds like Emily's parents had the same strategy in mind - why be forced to listen to your children clamoring for too many food treats every day when you can let them find out for themselves that such a diet does not satisfy long-term? Like my friend's sister, these girls learned something that they will remember for the rest of their lives.

    August 31, 2011 at 7:56 am |
  7. Alice

    My experience at Disney: No matter what you choose to eat, "healthy" (whatever that means) or not, it tastes the same. Nothing is charred, spiced, cooked separately. Food is made in bulk for sustenance, not pleasure. There is no depth of texture. All seems fake, and comes in enormous quantity. Coming from a Mediterranean culture, I find Disney food horrid.

    August 31, 2011 at 6:50 am |
  8. mmi16

    You are what you eat....and no one is FORCING you to over eat.

    August 31, 2011 at 3:39 am |
    • Matt

      Thanks for your input, genius.

      August 31, 2011 at 8:19 am |
      • Troll Patrol

        Do have anything to add besides your douchbag comments? Go suck a dick.

        August 31, 2011 at 8:59 am |
      • Matt@Troll Patrol

        I'll leave any and all co ck sucking to you. Now take your training wheels off of your little motor bike and run along now.

        August 31, 2011 at 9:14 am |
      • RH@Matt & TP

        You kids play nice or you will be picking up behind Dumbo,if you catch his drift?

        August 31, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  9. Jack

    What a great article! Honestly, it's the very first article I've ever enjoyed on CNN! For those who are talking about all the healthy eating options at DisneyWorld, you're missing the point of the author's story. She was a carefree child allowed to indulge because, I suspect, that her father knew that after a few days, his children wouldn't be so enamored with sweets and unhealthy food anymore. It was a very good plan on his part. I've heard of other parents doing this and having success in teaching their children healthy eating habits.

    August 31, 2011 at 1:33 am |
  10. Ninay

    There are so many food choices in Disney so it's possible to eat healthy all the time. I've tried the fried turkey leg once (just out of curiosity) and had some unhealthy burger and fries (because it was quick and convenient). What I love to do though is try the different cuisines available. I've enjoyed the buffet and show at the Biergarten in Epcot, ate at the English pub there and indulged in a few French pastries. I think my favorite restaurant in DisneyWorld is Boma in the Animal Kingdom Lodge. I've never been to Africa but because of the food prepared and served by people from Africa, I feel that I learn something about their culture from the food they eat.

    August 30, 2011 at 11:47 pm |
    • a-newton

      There is no fried turkey leg. The turkey legs are smoked, not fried. ;)

      August 31, 2011 at 8:23 am |
      • Bozo@a-newton

        Does the "a" stand for azzhole?

        August 31, 2011 at 9:31 am |
  11. Lisa21

    Disney has a lot of options no matter what you are looking for. They have healthy food and tasty bad for you food. The food has improved a lot in the last 10 years.

    August 30, 2011 at 9:19 pm |
  12. Jon

    Disney is actually a great place for healthy eating. My wife is vegan (no animal products). When we went to Disney World this year, every restaurant we ate at sent a chef to our table to discuss her dietary issues. Some even offered to make dishes that were not on the menu, just for her. Disney restaurants do this not only for vegans, but for people with food allergies or other dietary restrictions. Some people may eat unhelthily at Disney, but is certainly isn't for lack of healthy options.

    August 30, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • Mark

      And if we all required such hands-on attention we could personally solve the unemployment situation because every restaurant would have to hire as many chefs as there are diners, just to cater to their peccadillos.

      August 31, 2011 at 10:34 am |
  13. jada

    There are plenty of healthy choices at Disney World. Fresh veggies, fruits, and salads are available at every resort, along with grapes and natural applesauce as sides for kid's meals instead of fries or cookies. There are also fruit and veggie carts in the parks. The healthy stuff is readily available and easy to find... if you WANT to eat it.

    August 30, 2011 at 8:40 pm |
  14. gnjaxon

    I went to Epcot and had a bird crap on me. I lost my lunch that day.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:13 pm |
    • diana


      August 30, 2011 at 8:42 pm |
      • Matt

        I know, the best!

        August 31, 2011 at 8:20 am |
  15. Popcorn Papa

    Cool story. I think it illustrates how most Americans have been conditioned into bad eating habits out of convenience. I used to eat high-fat, high-carb, high-sodium meals three times a day, daily. The thing is, when a person eats that way, you become used to it and the foods just start tasting normal. I re-conditioned myself by eating a very low fat, low sodium diet for about two years and now I've gone back to eating some of the decadent foods I used to enjoy and I actually enjoy eating them a lot more now. Just some food for thought... pun intended.

    August 30, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
  16. Dirkthedaring

    this is not a story..it is an ad for Disney. Big food...big fat people..Oh...and Disney opened a new hotel in Hawaii..image all the fat people in swimsuits...eewwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww

    August 30, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • Leo White

      Mickey Mouse speedos...oh, the horror.......

      August 30, 2011 at 7:23 pm |
      • Bozo

        The ears are strategically located....

        August 31, 2011 at 7:21 am |
    • Matt@Dirkthedaring a hole

      Here, have a coke and a stfu smile.

      August 31, 2011 at 7:48 am |
  17. aughra

    My favorite offering from Disneyland, in Anaheim CA, is the bacon-wrapped asparagus, drizzled with lemon juice. You just have to know where the veggies are hiding! (In the safari-style food stand, near the Indiana Jones ride).

    August 30, 2011 at 6:18 pm |
  18. charls

    Very interesting. I will have to keep this in mind when I take my granddaughters to the place in a few years. I worked in a bakery for awhile and it sure dampened my desire for sugary things. When you pour a hundred pound bag of sugar into a bin, you can smell the sugar and I still remember it to this day. So enjoy the indulgence for a few days.

    August 30, 2011 at 6:13 pm |
  19. Marty

    We too were vegetable deprived. We couldn't eat enough once we made it back home to Canada from Disney. I'm wondering if Disney's food is typical American food. It's a pleasure for us to eat a lot of slightly steamed or raw veggies.

    August 30, 2011 at 6:00 pm |
    • m from maine

      its not typical american food, ive never seen so many people walk around with turkey legs, the great thing about American food is there is a wide variety that is typical unlike that homogenous barren tundra called canadia

      August 30, 2011 at 7:46 pm |
    • Sweetenedtea

      Just for the record, the fries in the poutine don't really count as vegetables.

      August 30, 2011 at 8:22 pm |
    • Chantal

      Disney is purely marketing to a vacation crowd with children. There use to be a wonderful, healthy sushi restaurant at Disneyland. So imagine my surprise when I went to book a meal to find that it was closed. The Disney cast member said that it did not get enough business and their lower end restaurants (less healthy food) saw much better business.
      :( It's alright, I found a sushi restaurant on the drive down to Disneyland so now we go there before our days of fun.

      August 30, 2011 at 10:39 pm |
    • Marty

      Regardless of the food, Disney is still a fun place to go to with kids. LOL for the poutine.

      August 31, 2011 at 8:08 am |
  20. Brad

    There are pretty healthy (and tasty) choices at the restaurant in EPCOT in the basement of The Land. But it's not enough. I wish they had similar restaurants at the other Orlando parks, especially the Magic Kingdom which is the most popular one.

    August 30, 2011 at 5:52 pm |
  21. Michelle Maskaly aka The Adirondack Chick

    Very cute read! A fellow food blogger and I are going to Disney World in October for the Food and Wine Festival and I'm sure by the third day I'm going to be asking for water and brown rice with veggies. When you change your diet like that an indulge I always find it interesting how then you want to go back to what you are used to eating.

    August 30, 2011 at 5:02 pm |
  22. Jack Be Humble

    I remember dinner at the Blue Bayou restaurant.

    August 30, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
  23. jaymo

    Disney is awesome and has great food everywhere! However, watch the costs (if you dont have a meal plan) and watch the the calorie intake. Walking the parks all day should burn off those calories though!

    August 30, 2011 at 4:18 pm |
  24. happytam

    Very nice read. I had a similar experience on a family trip to DisneyWorld several years ago. We were there for a week and by the 4th day all I wanted for dinner was a big fresh crisp salad. I remember that day I drank nothing but water, no soda, no lemonade, no sugary drinks, just cold water. That's all I wanted and it was so good. Of couse, on our last day there, I overindulged again just for old times sake and that was really good too.

    August 30, 2011 at 4:14 pm |
  25. RichardC

    That is a fun story! I still have similar experiences. My background is British. I thoroughly enjoy my trips back to England and Scotland, and overindulging in delicious fatty and starchy food. But, when it is time to come home, the thing I am most looking forward to is a fresh salad.

    August 30, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  26. Skottikins

    If I'm not mistaken, the photo is from Goofy's Kitchen. That place is pricey, but by and large it is the best buffet i have ever been to! Great story!

    August 30, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  27. AleeD

    That's a great story. Took me back to my own childhood when Walt Disney World offered paper straws, peanut butter sandwiches and mouse-eared ice cream novelties. Thank you and keep up the great work.

    The message I take away from this is that the body wants what it wants. Critical medical issues aside, if you listen to your body, it will let you know what it needs.

    August 30, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
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