March 20, 2007

Disneyland: Happiest, not healthiest place on earth.

This year is my 31th anniversary...for going to Disneyland. Yes, if you do the math, I was there on July 4, 19776, the 200th birthday of the good ole US of A.

Of course I have been to Disneyworld, multiple times, and once to Disneyworld Paris.

The first TV show watched in color? Why, that's Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

So as I write this blog, I started thinking about the "happiest place on earth". And does the food at Disneyland make it the healthiest place on earth?

You do have many food choices at the parks. Two years ago my family and I had our Thanksgiving Day "feast" there. We dined on African food in the Animal Kingdom lodge restaurant. I'm not sure of the nutritional value of the food since that information is not available. But, the portions, though, seemed appropriately the right size, especially considering Thanksgiving is not known for eating sensibly.

On the author went with UC Irvine's weight management program director Linda M. Gigliotti, a registered dietitian, to answer some questions about the amusement park food.

Not only is March, National Nutrition Month, but last October Walt Disney Parks & Resorts launched its Well-Balanced Foods Initiative, so our timing couldn't have been better to see how the program has been faring.

Gigliotti took samples of popular snacks sold throughout the park by outdoor vending carts to weigh and check the caloric count at her office. We also parked ourselves at various locations to observe what food selections people made at the carts, cafes and restaurants.

Our goal was to find out whether it's possible to be both healthy and happy at the kingdom created for kids.

On the plus side, Gigliotti says she was pleased that healthy alternatives are equally available on the menus at most restaurants, that food portions aren't "huge," and that many healthy snacks are sold in an accessible form, such as carrots with dips, that can be carried while walking.

"Sometimes the problem when you get into a controlled environment is that you're really stuck with what they have there," says Gigliotti. "I thought given the environment that it is, that they did have a good range of choices. There were vegetarian items; there were some low-fat items."

She especially liked the vending carts loaded with items like freshly cut fruit, trail mixes, and water, and felt they were as accessible as the carts selling popcorn or ice cream bars.

In Mickey's Toontown, a section popular with young children, Gigliotti was less than impressed with menus that were heavy on high-fat, high-calorie, high-sodium items like pizza and mini hot dogs.

"That was probably the area where there was the most limited variety," says Gigliotti, who felt this was disappointing given Toontown's emphasis on children's activities. Other menus, like the Golden Horseshoe in Frontierland, she found were also high on fried foods and high-calorie desserts.

Another news organization had done a similar experiment he said, tipping me off to a nutritional analysis commissioned by Bloomberg News last fall that found that Disney's Magic Kingdom in Florida serves food with more fat, salt and calories than even the McDonald's Corp. They discovered one reason some food is fattier than McDonald's is because Disney's serving sizes are bigger.

Bloomberg also found, for example, that a smoked turkey leg sold in Frontierland has almost a day's worth of fat and 1,092.5 calories.

Disney maintained that the Bloomberg study was unbalanced for focusing on a fraction of the food it offers. However, if it truly aims to promote healthier kids' diets, as its initiative claims, then shouldn't all its offerings be open to analysis?

Gigliotti says that Disney is on target with its ongoing initiative, which aims to offer at least one low-fat, no trans-fat and one vegetarian entee option at all table service locations and at least one fast food service location per park section by the end of 2007. Balancing fun with good health is always a challenge, but less so when you have the options from which to choose.

"I would hope that they will promote these healthier choices more and make them more visible to the consumer so that guests will be more likely to seek out (these choices)," says Gigliotti.

So the report is mixed, like most restaurants in America. Disneyland gets an "C" for starting to think about healthy options. But gets a "D-" for executing a complete healthy food vision. If there's ever a place in America that needs lots and lots of healthy food for kids, it's Disneyland.

Walt Disney always looked into the future. The current management needs to do the same, and lead the rest of corporate America.

No comments: