Editor's Note — David Allan, editorial director for Features at CNN, has been a vegetarian for more than 25 years and Star Wars fan for 40 years. This is the first time those two priorities have intersected. The views expressed here about Disney's plant-based options are his own.
Orlando, Florida (CNN) — The self-described "happiest place on Earth" is getting increasingly happier for animals, and for those who are increasingly removing those animals from their diet.
After a big push last fall, the resort development division of Walt Disney World in Florida has identified more than 400 new and proven "plant-based" options on the menus of all its food locations, including park restaurants, food carts and hotel properties. That's 580 locations in Disney World alone. And a similar effort is underway at the Disneyland park and resort in Anaheim, California.
Just don't call these non-meat, non-dairy, non-honey options "vegan."
"Most research shows that the word 'vegan' appeals to vegans but the trend is much broader than that," explained Cheryl Dolven, a manager for food and beverage health and wellness with Walt Disney World Resort Development, Optimization and Standardization.
"'Plant-based' is much more broadly appealing," Dolven added.
"I get it, 'vegan' sounds weird," I said to Dolven, who politely didn't disagree.
"Plant-based" can be defined more loosely than vegan, says CNN Health contributor and nutritionist Lisa Drayer. But Disney defines their "plant-based" options as "made without animal meal, dairy, eggs and honey," according to their website, meeting the commonly accepted definition of vegan.
Like many of Disney's food offerings, some of the vegan dishes are themed to match their location. This hummus dish served at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge is called a "Felucian Garden Spread," a reference to a planet covered in overgrown plants in the Star Wars universe.
Whatever you want to call it, it's a smart move to capitalize on a trend that's already impacting the restaurant and hospitality industry across the country. Restaurant sales of alternative meat products jumped 268% last year, according to the Dining Alliance, a US industry group.
Disney was also hearing directly from its own visitors, who were noting dietary restrictions in their reservations, buying more meat-free options, and giving feedback in guest surveys asking for vegan options. It all became a growing chorus asking the resorts to embrace a growing vegetarian and vegan appetite.
The company is also trying to appeal to younger guests, the future of Disney, as well as its own cast members who adhere to plant-based diets, Dolven added.
The proof is in the tasting
It's one thing to offer more hummus and carrot sticks. It's another to invest and innovate in alternatives that appeal to the diverse interests of those who are vegan and may still crave the taste of meat, chocolate, pastries and ice cream.
Disney chose the latter. Its in-house Flavor Lab, a research and development facility used to create and test new menu items, tasked its chefs to reeducate themselves. They took trips to vegan (sorry, plant-based) restaurants in New York and Philadelphia. They began hunting for and developing replacements for mayonnaise, butter, yogurt, cheese and eggs.
Generally, "chefs aren't trained that way," said Gary Jones, a culinary dietary specialist at Walt Disney World. "A lot of us are going back and relearning how to extract the most flavor from plant-based choices."
Jones then led me through a sampling of some of that research and development.
The most impressive of the offerings was the seafood platter on the menu at the Toledo restaurant located at Coronado Springs Resort. The creations mimicked a mouth-feel -- flavor, texture and other sensations -- I'd been craving over the more than 25 years I've been a vegetarian.
The royal trumpet mushroom-based "scallop" was tender and buttery. The breaded fungi "calamari" was tangy and chewy. But it was the heart of palm-based "crab cake" that was personally moving.
I was born and raised in Maryland, baptized in Old Bay seasoning. I've never found a fake crab that wasn't fish. And the Toledo's crab cake was just how I've long dreamed non-seafood crab could be, the taste evoking childhood memories.
All over the Disney World parks and hotel restaurants, new menus rolled out in the fall feature a green leaf icon next to items that are plant-based. And while the company's website has a new page featuring plant-based meal options, Disney's vegan fans have created their own guides with a lot more detail and reviews.
And when it comes to Disney's plant-based options, one size doesn't fit all. Most of the new options are unique to a location's theme and cuisine type.
The rustic-looking PizzeRizzo in Hollywood Studios serves a thick and juicy spicy Italian "sausage" sub, the same cost as their meatball sub. The African themed Mara restaurant in the Animal Kingdom Lodge has a Marrakesh Falafel Platter served with soy yogurt. Epcot's Rose & Crown Dining Room, for example, has a vegan version of the traditional UK breakfast of bangers and mash available upon request. Hollywood Studios' fancy Brown Derby serves a popular vegan chocolate-coconut cake, the same price as the espresso cheesecake and chocolate mousse cake.
And they ate happily ever after
I sampled other options in the Orlando parks, uncovering a not-so-hidden world of vegan, er, plant-based dining.
In Galaxy's Edge, the Star Wars land, I adored the Felucian Garden Spread, with plant-based spicy "kefta" meatballs and hummus and tomato-cucumber relish with pita bread, served in a skillet and actual metal silverware. The kefta was meaty-chewy and filling, the hummus thick with herbs. Jones said its one of the best sellers among the stellar offerings at the boisterous Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo. Felucia is a jungle planet that makes a brief appearance in "Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith."
On the other end of the culinary spectrum, the ABC Commissary in Orlando's Hollywood Studios served a thick and delicious vegan California Burger with sautéed peppers, vegan mayo ketchup and a Sriracha mustard, served with a side of perfectly crisp shoestring fries. It cost $2 more than their traditional cheeesburger. I didn't see any vegan dessert options, so I asked the woman taking orders if there were any. She looked confused and politely answered, "No, I don't think so," which the Disney public relations department later confirmed.
And I made a hearty dinner of the Southwest Bowl at the Fairfax Fare stand in Hollywood Studios. The bowl is a well crafted blend of chili, corn and vegan cheese, topped with non-dairy ranch dressing and crunchy tortilla chips. It costs the same as their comparable bowl with chicken.
I also noticed some locations not meeting the claim that all food locations have plant-free options. The Dockside Diner, near the Fairfax Fare didn't have any plant-based options on its menu of hot dogs and nachos.
But Disney is getting there. Disneyland will get its big plant-based push this spring. And properties in Europe and Asia have many plant-based options but no current plans to overhaul their menus (visitor demand could affect that decision).
Given the planners' careful eye on sales, it's clear that the more Disney guests who choose vegetarian and plant-based options, the more options they can expect. After all, this is a hospitality brand famous for its innovation and for perpetually reinventing itself, and that extends to its dining choices.
"It's been great to see the reception we've seen from the guests," said Jones of the new plant-based options. "They are ordering more than we thought and influencing other guests. And our chefs are a lot more inspired and excited about it."
As should vegetarian and vegan guests.