Eileen Ogintz, Taking the Kids, June 21, 2013
Who wants ice cream for breakfast?
At Give Kids the World Village (www.givekidstheworld.org) near the Orlando theme parks, visiting kids can have ice cream every day for breakfast if they choose. They can celebrate Halloween in June and Christmas in July, complete with presents. In fact, there's a Halloween party and a visit from Santa every week of the year. Kids might even stay in houses that are painted their favorite color - pink and green and blue.
There's the world's largest Candyland game, mini-golf, horseback riding, visits from favorite Disney and Nickelodeon characters with photographers at the ready, a pool, fishing pond, putting green, carousel, crafts and the chance for little girls to get sparkly manicures.
But that's not the best part at the 70-acre resort village. The best part is that "No one stares," said Mary Kate Bandstra, one of 12-year-old triplets from Iowa. Her brother Ethan has had severe challenges from birth and looks different than Mary Kate, her other triplet Lucas and younger sister Ella.
"It's a different world here," agreed Carlette Mims, whose son suffered a stroke at birth. "It's so comfortable."
These families belong to a club no parent wants to join. They have a child - some as young as three, others teenagers - with a life-threatening illness and have been recommended by one of 250 wish-granting organizations around the world. Most of these families have never been on a plane, much less on vacation because all of their energy and money is devoted to the sick child.
For a week, 140 families at a time can forget about treatments and surgeries and medical bills. "It's all about fun here," said Neal McCord, one of the directors. It's also free - starting from the time they leave home and including their theme park visits, where the kids and their families get VIP treatment, thanks to special buttons they wear.
Though sick kids can choose all kinds of wishes, Orlando is always a top pick. One little girl I met wanted to meet Rapunzel, another little boy Buzz Lightyear. They may want to swim with the dolphins, become transformed into a princess or, like 8-year-old Amber Simmons from Tacoma, Wash., ride every big roller coaster they can.
"We're always full," said McCord. Since 1986, the resort has welcomed more than 120,000 families from all 50 states and more than 70 countries.
Ironically, the resort was started by a wish that couldn't be granted. In 1986, a little girl named Amy, who was suffering from leukemia, wrote to local hotelier Henri Landwirth asking if he would host her family. He gladly agreed but by the time the logistics and arrangements could be made, Amy had died. Landwirth, now in his 80s, started Give Kids the World so that no child would ever miss having their wish to visit Orlando granted.
Today, more and more children with life-threatening illnesses are surviving. Some kids here don't look sick at all; others like Amber have lost their hair from chemotherapy and some are in wheelchairs. Nevertheless, "This is a very happy place," says Neal McCord.
The playground and pool are completely accessible; the horseback riding is therapeutic. The food in the dining room, which is called the Gingerbread House and is staffed by volunteers, can be fine-tuned to suit any restrictive diet.
"I've never seen my son so happy," said Kelly Delpierre, a single mom from Wisconsin whose 3-year-old suffers from a heart condition. "When I have a chance to give back, this is the place."
There are plenty of opportunities, with 1,500 volunteer shifts every week. Now, Universal Orlando Resort is hoping to facilitate families volunteering together with a new package that includes a four-hour volunteer stint at Give Kids the World along with a three-day resort visit, including a stay at one of the Universal Orlando Loews hotels and transportation back and forth to Give Kids the World. Kids must be eight to participate. For every package booked, Universal Orlando will donate $100 to Give Kids the World. (The package, including hotels, theme park tickets and express-ride access, starts at $589 per adult and $125 per child (ages 3 to 9), www.universalorlando.com. For information on other volunteer activities, visit www.givekidstheworld.org.)
Families might help with character photos, assist with face-painting and makeup at the La-Ti-Da-Spa, serve meals or deliver breakfast to families at their villas.
"You come here and get a good feeling when you can help a family out," said 15-year-old Abby Baltzegar, who was helping to set up for Mayor Clayton's weekly surprise birthday party. Mayor Clayton, incidentally, is a 6-foot-tall rabbit.
Abby was part of a group that came from her church in South Carolina with their Pastor, Neil Flowers. "You come here and you're reminded how blessed you are," Flowers said, looking around at all of the families.
In the Castle of Miracles the ceiling is plastered with more than 100,000 shiny plastic stars - one for each wish child who has come since the Castle was built. Families often return to visit, finding their star, thanks to the bar code identifying each one.
"There are just so many stars ... so many kids!" said Ying Xu, an engineer from Oklahoma whose 6-year-old daughter, Nora, is recovering from a brain tumor diagnosed when she was four. Nora and her younger brother, like every other kid at every other Orlando hotel, were bursting with excitement to meet their favorite characters.
"You are always so worried," said Ying Xu, as she watched them finish dinner, a dinner she didn't have to cook. "It's amazing to be able to come here and just enjoy."