Thirty years ago a man named Henri Landwirth had an idea: engage the hospitality industry in Central Florida and, with their assistance, make wishes come true for as many children battling life-threatening illness as possible. Since 1986, 143,000 kids have seen their Wishes become reality.
For one full week, “wish kids” (as they’re affectionately called) and their families receive a cost-free holiday in Orlando, staying in Give Kids the World Village’s beautifully furnished villas (unlike most homes, it’s the kids’ bathroom that has all the fancy amenities!), celebrating both Halloween and Christmas every week (as well as each child’s birthday), having one-on-one interactions with the Village’s characters and characters from the theme parks, eating ice cream for breakfast, attending parties every night and returning each evening after a long day of playing in the parks to find a surprise-filled goodie-bag waiting for them.
During the day they’re VIP guests at the theme parks. They might be a trainer for a day at SeaWorld or Gatorland. Or become a princess or a pirate. Or ride a horse for the first time. Whatever the wish, GKTW makes it come true.
The families we’ve seen arriving at the storybook-style Village come into the House of Hearts reception area with mixed emotions: excitement, exhaustion, a little bit of apprehension that comes from 24/7 attention to their child’s special needs. Then, over the next couple of days, a transformation takes place. Worry is replaced by joy as the energy of the Village envelops them, and their focus is turned toward playing as a family, perhaps for the first time in years. Anyone who works at GKTW or volunteers there will tell you: it’s not a sad place at all, it’s a place filled with happiness and re-discovery of a family bond that is greater than the illness that brought them there.
And that’s worth celebrating!
The Village’s Park of Dreams pool area was Party Central on Monday, and, while many of the guests were members of the media and prominent supporters of GKTW, the real VIPs were the families staying there. With each of the 140 houses in the Village occupied that day, the crowd was considerable, but there was ample space to accommodate all the dancing the kids were doing, as well as all the chasing of the characters who had come out en masse to meet their special guests. Food was provided by national Mexican chain restaurant Chuy’s, and every table was covered in light-up sabers and wands for the kids to take home.
Here was a mermaid chatting with the children and posing with them for photographs in her cozy clam shell. There was a pirate—Long John Gold, not to be confused with his cousin, Long John Silver—blowing on a conch shell and accusing parents of bringing a cannon along when their youngsters wanted their picture taken. Knights, pirates, princesses, a gingerbread man, Santa, Rugby and Reme from the Adventures of Rugby and Reme children’s reading series, and even a glittery pink pony romped and played with the kids, while other volunteers, called Angels, cooked and served and made absolutely certain everyone present felt that ‘special something’ the Village is so well known for. If the little boy jumping and laughing and dancing at the table next to ours is anything to go by (and we’re pretty sure he is!), their efforts were wildly successful.
Jill McConnell came with her son, Mark, for a Wish visit in 1999 and, although Mark has since passed on, Jill attended the anniversary event, saying, “Give Kids The World has such a special place in my heart, we wanted to help mark the anniversary from the families’ perspective. It’s the most incredible adventure you’ll ever take in a lifetime. My son went through ‘hell on Earth’ as we called it, but in the few short days we were here, we had one of the most magical adventures because of what the Landwirths invested. I can tell you the spirit of the village lives on in you, no matter what. One child had a wish, and we get the dynamic adventure of a lifetime.”
Mark’s star still graces the Star Tower in the Castle of Miracles, just as every wish child who visits the Village has their own star that the family can visit any time they like. Because it’s not just about being special for one week. Every kid who is fighting a life-threatening illness, who has won the battle, or who has left us, will be forever remembered by their Give Kids the World family.
Is it the last holiday some of the children will have? Yes, it is. Is it the first of many illness-free holidays some will enjoy? Yes, it’s that too. For some, it’s a celebration of wellness when the life-threatening illness has been conquered. For still others, it’s a pause in the process; a break from treatments and tests and hospital visits, giving the family time to breathe, to recharge, and to make precious magical memories. And is it, ultimately, one of the most joyous places you could every visit? Undoubtedly.
GKTW partners with over 205 ‘wish granting’ organisations, including 7 in the United Kingdom, and has hosted children and their families from 75 countries. It’s a charity theme park fans can feel passionate about, knowing their support is a way of ‘giving back’ after their own fantastic holiday, and it’s also one we hope will someday outlive its usefulness.
Until then, we are proud to be Awareness Angels for such a worthy group, and with so many of Orlando’s businesses, including the theme parks, giving it their full support, we think their 30th Anniversary is the perfect time to shine a little light on a tiny corner of Orlando where a simple wish becomes so much more.