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Exclusive: Disney & The Coalition for the Homeless combine for a Thanksgiving meal mission

by Susan and Simon Veness

How do you go about preparing a Thanksgiving Day meal for almost 700? Well, it’s all in a (few) days’ work for Walt Disney World Resort executive chef James O’Donnell and his busy Food and Beverage team at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

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In keeping with Disney’s more than 20 years of helping the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, Chef O’Donnell is front and center of this year’s annual drive to provide the traditional Thanksgiving meal for the 650+ homeless men, women and children the Coalition valiantly supports.

While acknowledging 2020 has been a year unlike any other with the various problems of the coronavirus pandemic, Chef O’Donnell is just grateful to have a chance for the whole Food and Beverage team at the Studios to help out.

“It’s been different on a lot of levels,” he admitted. “The one thing that is constant is our team’s excitement and willingness to make this a part of every year, whether it’s the month-to-month meals we do normally or special occasions. It’s Thanksgiving. It’s turkey, it’s mashed potatoes and gravy, it’s stuffing. There are many similarities to what we normally do. Yes, it’s a little different, but it’s something we are excited about, to bring to the community we all live in.”

Disney’s involvement with the Coalition dates back to the 1990s and is part of a community-wide effort to support the homeless at a critical time of the year, with different parts of the Resort’s extensive Food and Beverage operations being involved.

“It’s been going on for many years and it’s one of the things our culinarians love to participate in,” Chef James confirmed. “It’s something we’re proud to do, and when this opportunity came up for Thanksgiving this year, our team jumped on the opportunity to shepherd it through.

“For us as chefs and culinarians, it’s all about feeding people and helping to bring people together. That’s why we cook, especially for myself, and especially during these times. It’s been trying for all of us, so the idea of being able to share a meal with friends and family, or hopefully new friends, is something that makes me smile. That was really a proud moment to see my team jump at this, like, yes, we want to be a part of serving this community.”

The logistics of putting so many meals together at once would be daunting for many, but it has become a well-rehearsed practice for Chef O’Donnell and the park’s many kitchens. “This will be my fourth year of leading a team at the Coalition,” he explained. “For this particular meal, I have every restaurant and chef at Disney’s Hollywood Studios preparing a portion of it.

“That way I didn’t bombard one chef, even though there were plenty that would have volunteered to do the whole meal. Everybody was able to attack a particular component, whether it was the potatoes, the stuffing, the cranberry sauce; even donating to-go boxes so that we can feed people who aren’t able to be part of the meal at the Coalition.”

Chef O’Donnell, who was previously Culinary Director for the prestigious Cornerstone Group in Chicago and opened the popular STK Steakhouse at Disney Springs in 2016 before joining Disney full-time three years ago, didn’t need to ask for volunteers to help out with this year’s mammoth culinary operation.

“The enthusiasm from our chefs is pretty palpable,” he confirmed. “So it’s really not difficult to get people that are culinarians to cook, and to cook for a great cause. It was pretty easy to get people going. It was really just me looking at everybody and trying to assign which part of the meal they wanted to prepare, and then letting them go after it.”

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This year’s meal also comes with a substantial extra Disney gift, courtesy of the many fountains around Walt Disney World. Every year, thousands of guests toss small change into the various water features throughout the Resort and make a wish, and this year all those coins have been collected into a whopping $20,000 bundle and are being given to the Coalition to help make their annual meal service as smooth as possible.

Meredith Bekemeyer, director of development for the Coalition for the Homeless of Central Florida, says that their partnership with Disney has been a vital lifeline over the years, providing an essential level of finance and support.

“They are just amazing,” she insisted. “They provide support on just about every level, from financial to food donations and volunteer help. The relationship is just phenomenal. They really are truly invested in what we do here and want to get involved in as many ways as possible.

“No-one wants to be homeless, and it is even more challenging at this time of year, when the expression ‘Home for the holidays’ is especially tough if you don’t have a home. That’s where Disney and their traditional turkey dinner for our guests is especially valuable.”

This year’s extra $20,000 “fountain coins” donation will also be an extremely welcome bonus in supporting the Coalition’s mission at such a crucial time during our pandemic-hit year.

“COVID has impacted all of us at some level and, if you are homeless, it is an extra stress,” Meredith added. “We are fortunate to have such a caring community that supports us well, but this Disney donation will have a huge impact on our mission and the people we serve here. It is just awesome at this time of year.”

Chef O’Donnell has also seen the good work the Coalition has done in Central Florida at first hand, and is a big cheerleader for their whole-hearted efforts: “I think it’s tremendous that they’re serving the community a healthy and balanced meal throughout the year,” he added. “I’m always proud to be a part of it when we can, as a cast member at Walt Disney World. They do a tremendous job, and our ability to support their efforts is very important to me and my team.”


Thanksgiving Extra

As you begin your own meal planning. Chef James is sharing some of his favorite ingredients to spice up classic Thanksgiving dishes, inspired by the delicious food he and his team are preparing for the Coalition to serve this week. Check out the graphic below for his Turkey Day Tips – and we hope these add a little pixie dust to your holiday meals this year!

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Disney Thanksgiving by the numbers

With 650-plus meals to put together for the Coalition of the Homeless of Central Florida, that’s a LOT of ingredients for Chef James O’Donnell and his team to assemble.

Here is how it reads by the numbers:

  • 240 pounds of turkey meat
  • 60 gallons of sauces, including turkey gravy and cranberry jelly
  • 276 pounds of sides, including cornbread, mashed potatoes and green beans
  • 800 parker house rolls
  • 72 pies

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