For the past five years, I’ve had the privilege to participate in wishes. Not the most common experience for a neuroscientist turned travel-writer, but, by far, the highlight of my year. I’m currently in Kissimmee, Florida – a place where the words dreams, wishes, and magic are thrown around like… well… pixie dust. However, the source of the magic is actually a couple of miles down the road from the 66 square miles Walt purchased. I’m referring to Give Kids The World Village (GKTW), where children with life-threatening illnesses stay when they have a wish to visit Walt’s World. Along with me are 13 college students spending their spring break volunteering to help these special families have a vacation they’ll never forget. Continue reading for more details about GKTW, and to follow along LIVE during our alternative break trip. I’ll continue to update as best I can (we get a little busy) with thoughts and photos over the course of the week. For the most up-to-the-minute updates be sure to watch on twitter and facebook too.
If you’re not familiar with Give Kids The World, for over 25 years, this is where children with life-threatening illnesses stay when they have a wish to go to Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, or anything possibly related to Central Florida. GKTW partners with wish-granting organization, like Make-a-Wish, to give these families a chance to forget their worries of the day, and just be a regular family.
Like any other Florida tourist destination, spring break is a busy time at GKTW. The Village is 100% occupied with wish families from all over the world, and it’s the job of 1400 volunteers (like my group and so many others) each week to help out with the resort’s operation.
On Saturday, March 15th, my students had finished all their exams and papers, and packed up to leave snowy upstate New York. Before they knew it they were welcomed to the Florida sun and Mickey Mouse. Bright and early Sunday morning, they were awake and heading to Give Kids The World for their first volunteer shifts. “My alarm rang at 6am, and I was up and ready to go,” said Mary, “I would never do that at school.”
Up at 6am on a Sunday morning during their spring break vacation? Yup, wish families were depending on them, and by 8am we were all dispersed throughout the Village helping with crafts and activities, checking out mini golf clubs, attending the pool, and helping families find stars in the Castle of Miracles. We have the afternoon off while the wish families play in the area theme parks, and then we’re back to help serve dinner at the Gingerbread House (shown above, and below with one of the managers, Nancy).
An unexpected surprise was how much the people at GKTW impact on my students and I. Of course, the wish families’ strength and positive outlook is always an inspiration, but there are so many stories of the individual workers and volunteers as well. Our fellow volunteers during our shift at the Gingerbread House included an Alumni Family volunteering with their two wish children, a husband and wife from Canada with a daughter who grants wishes via the Make-A-Wish Foundation, and a woman who solo all the way from Japan (by herself) to volunteer in the Village. She watched a program on Japanese television about GKTW and decided to spend two weeks volunteering in the Village – oh, and she walks over a mile each way from her Kissimmee hotel to the Village to volunteer. This place has a profound effect on those who enter.
Monday morning our group staffed various venues around the Village including the carousel, Amberville Train Station, Hula Hut, pool, and Castle of Miracles. Mary Poppins, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and Pluto made a stop at the Village to visit with the wish families (as well as some volunteers).
We had the afternoon off while the families played in the area theme parks, and made a beeline to Downtown Disney to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. However, the St. Paddy’s crowds and a Florida downpour thwarted our efforts, so we retreated to a hearty meal at Sweet Tomatoes (a regular for my alternative break groups). In the evening it was back to Give Kids The World to celebrate Mayor Clayton’s Hare-Raising Halloween Extravaganza.
Tuesday was a long, but fulfilling, day at Give Kids The World. We left our condos at 7:00am to serve breakfast at the Gingerbread House, and we wouldn’t leave the Village until returning to our condos at 10:00pm. Yes, these students put in a 15 hour day volunteering, while on spring break.
After our shift at the Gingerbread House, we were able to meet Pamela Landwirth, President of Give Kids The World, and then learn about the background of how the Village was founded from our good friend Neal McCord.
It’s been said, “if you don’t get choked up on a tour with Neal, then you aren’t paying attention.”
On this particular tour, Neal even proceeded to get himself choked up and misty eyed. Of course, he quickly recovered and, as is always the case when we meet with Neal, after some good stories, he put us to work. How is it that the Village’s “Risk Management” Officer always loads and drives my students around in the back of a box truck?
After working the afternoon with Neal, it was time to head back out to the Village to play with the wish families – painting nails and giving airbrush tattoos in the La Ti Da Spa, giving rides on the Carousel, and taking them for a tour on the train. We even had a visit from Walt Disney World’s Yehaa Bob Jackson who performed his show during dinner at the Gingerbread House. Yes, by the time we were back in our condos after 10:00pm, the group was pleasantly exhausted (at least this professor was exhausted), but everyone was back up and ready to go the next morning at 7:00am.
After Tuesday’s 15 hour day, we were back at it first thing Wednesday morning to volunteer at the Village at 7:30am. Remember, these are college spring breakers in Florida… By this time of the trip, everyone’s feeling quite comfortable at GKTW, and quickly headed to their stations in the Gingerbread House and the Castle of Miracles. Afterwards, we took an excursion to see some of the local Florida wildlife.
Gatorland is one of the original Kissimmee, FL roadside attractions, established in 1949 – long before there was ever a Walt Disney World. Home to 100’s of alligators of all sizes, and fully embracing its kitschy charm. The students definitely won’t see this in Western New York. Click here for more photos and details on our visit to Gatorland.
Following our spending a few hours at Gatorland, it was back to Give Kids The World for our evening volunteer shifts with the wish families stationed all around the Village.
This is our one full day off during the week to go play in the theme parks, and we’re celebrating the first day of spring by heading to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom! I’d say everyone was too excited to sleep last night, but I think we’re all sleeping pretty well after all of our full days of volunteering. We arrived at 8:00am to enter the theme park as soon as they opened the gates.
The Big Cheese, Mickey Mouse, personally greeted us upon our arrival. Actually spooking a couple of students who didn’t know he could now speak.
We had lunch in The Beast’s castle, went “Under the Sea” to see Ariel, and caught the spectacular Festival of Fantasy Parade. [Click here for a full, multi-angle VIDEO of this fantastic new parade.]
Zurg! Let My Students GO!
We stayed until the Magic Kingdom closed, and ended our night watching Wishes fireworks spectacular (always impactful after working with wish families) and the Main Street Electrical Parade.
So far during our alternative break, we’ve had a 15 hour day at Give Kids The World and a 16 hour day at the Magic Kingdom. As we woke up for our last day working at the Village – we were little tired from playing in the park yesterday, but nothing diminished our energy for the wish families. Today was our last chance to drive wish families in the train at the Amberville Station,
and our last morning to give rides on the Carousel.
After our morning volunteer shift in the Village, we tried something new during our afternoon break – indoor surfing at Fantasy Surf in Kissimmee. Nobody in the group had any previous experience with a Flowrider, but they were willing to give it a try. If you want more photos and to find out how we did, follow this link.
Fortunately, they still had big smiles when our session ended. Afterwards we rushed back to the condos for a quick change, and an early celebratory dinner at one of our favorite restaurants – The Fountain at the Walt Disney World Dolphin.
Then it was already time for our final volunteer shifts in the Village – ending with a rousing Pirates and Princess Party.
As if we hadn’t already had a full day, we couldn’t leave the area without stopping by to see our good friend Yehaa Bob Jackson at Disney’s Port Orleans Riverside who came to Geneseo, NY in October to perform a benefit concert as a fundraiser for our trip.
It never ceases to amaze me just how quickly these alternative break trips fly by – with each one going faster than the last. After a week volunteering at Give Kids The World, came the hardest part – saying goodbye. On our way to the airport we paused at the GKTW Chapel to reflect on the wish families we met, the new friends we made, and work we had done.
Thank you to Give Kids The World and my students for another amazing alternative break week in the Village. It was a privilege to work side-by-side with this caring group, and help support these strong families.
I’d like to point out that ours was not the only college group working this week at the Village. We volunteered alongside students from Texas Tech University, Mount Vernon Nazarene University, Indiana, Iowa, and others. Everyone was working hard and having fun to help these wish families have a special vacation.
I consider myself lucky. For the past 5 years, I’ve received a week in the sun at a resort filled with laughter, joy, and hope, along with some special groups of college students who just want to give a little back. Now you tell me who is getting their wish granted. Thanks for following along.
For more of photos taken during our alternative spring break at Give Kids The World Village, check out the gallery below. Note: the photo gallery requires Flash Player, click here to view all the images if your device is not Flash equipped.