I 'm watching Mayor Clayton, a six-foot bunny in spectacles and a plaid vest, wade through a crowd of children who are laughing with delight. It's the unmistakable sound of happy, excited kids squeezing every ounce of joy from a fairytale world.
But these youngsters have every reason to be anything but happy. In their real lives they're battling leukemia, Wilms tumors, glioblastoma, lymphoma and other diseases, and they face weeks, months and years of chemotherapy, radiation and discomfort. They're here at Give Kids The World Village in Kissimmee, Florida, for a break from the grim and grinding ordeal their lives can be. The laughter shows just how well it's working.
It all started because Henri Landwirth, a hotelier, was looking forward to welcoming a little girl with leukemia to his hotel for a complimentary stay through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Her name was Amy, and she passed away before her Make-A-Wish trip to visit the area's theme parks could be fulfilled.
Landwirth felt that no child should ever miss a trip to Disney's Magic Kingdom, or the Kissimmee area's many other destinations due to trip-planning logistics, ever again. He called on his many friends in the hospitality industry to assist him in bringing children with life-threatening illnesses and their families to Central Florida—within a day, if necessary. He called his program Give Kids The World.
As the program expanded, it was clear that there was a need to create a home-away-from-home for the children and their families as they enjoyed their trip of a lifetime.
And why not make that home-away-from-home a whimsical, happy, joyful place, too; almost its own theme park?
"Just for a moment, close your eyes and recall the happiest day of your life," said Landwirth. "Now imagine you are a child battling a life-threatening illness immersed in a week full of the happiest days of your life." That's what Landwirth wanted to provide: an atmosphere full of joy and fun that would give children and their families the opportunity to spend time together, having fun.
Even before Landwirth founded Give Kids The World Village, he had lived a life of great triumph. With his twin sister, Landwirth survived World War II's Nazi concentration camps. Using the great challenges he's experienced, Landwirth made the world a better place for children and families that are facing difficult times.
Give Kids The World Village is 79 acres of wonder, fun and escape that has served more than 140,000 kids who are fighting for their lives since 1986. Working with over 250 wish-granting organizations, it is an island of rest and recreation in Kissimmee, within easy reach of the Disney parks, Universal Studios, SeaWorld and dozens of other exciting attractions.
The Village provides free accommodations and free tickets to the area's theme parks, but it's no mere launching point. Fun and fantasy abound here, as well: Village characters, such as Mayor Clayton, invite friends from other theme parks over to visit, such as Mickey Mouse, SpongeBob SquarePants, Buzz Lightyear and others. There's also a different themed party every night.
"The design priorities started with Henri Landwirth," said Michael Bausman, GKTW director of facilities. "His vision was whimsical buildings focused on children; the intent is to have our families forget why they are here."
The streets are lined with colorful and comfortable guest villas—Alpine chalets next to Mediterranean bungalows, all with full kitchens, family rooms with HiDef televisions, and plenty of beds and baths for everyone.
Just outside the villas' doors, there's fun to be found.
At the Amberville Train Station—just below towering giraffes, toy soldiers and a colorful windmill—board the vividly hued JJ's Express for a train ride around the Village, or there's always time to wet a line at the Happy Harbor Fishing Pond.
At Marc's Dino-Putt, pars and birdies flourish in a lush jungle setting filled with pretend dinosaurs; some realistic, others brightly colored and fanciful. Kids scamper in and out of a thatch-roof cottage sprouting an enormous Jack and the Beanstalk-style beanstalk. At the Ice Cream Palace, kids laugh at their parents' shock that ice cream for breakfast is almost a requirement, and makeovers are up for grabs at the La-Ti-Da Spa.
Elsewhere, there's Katie's Kitchen; Julie's Safari Theatre; Keaton's Korral, where thrilled kids get to ride real horses; Bob's Sparkleberry Nature Trail; and Matthew's Boundless Playground. All named for real kids who have visited the Village.
Putting reality aside for a week doesn't mean kids at the Village don't have special needs. Everything at the Village is accessible to kids with all kinds of physical requirements.
"We were beyond ADA-compliant before it came about," Bausman says, referring to the 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act. "Wheelchair-accessible showers were enhanced during Extreme Village Makeover." In January 2014, 88 villas were renovated during a special version of the popular show Extreme Home Makeover. With those renovations complete, it was the first time in some children's lives that they could take a shower by themselves. "We take, very seriously, input and comments from physicians, children, families and anyone who has experienced Give Kids The World Village," Bausman says.
Many GKTW alums want to share more than input and comments—they want to share their lives. Former visitors are the backbone of the Village's corps of volunteers; eager to share the joy they found there with new generations of visitors.
Some go on to join the staff, like Adrianne Philion, whose brother Jako had brain cancer and spent a week at Give Kids The World Village in 1998, when she was only 9.
"I remember eating pancakes every morning at the peppermint tables in the Gingerbread House," she smiles, noting how the Village tries to make the whole family feel special. "My favorite memory was waking up our first morning in our villa to not only a special gift from the gift fairies for Jako, but one for me as well." Special touches like this make Give Kids The World Village an unforgettably positive experience for the whole family.
But the benefits of Give Kids The World Village extend beyond the kids and families staying there. GKTW hosts volunteer groups from a wide variety of church, civic, and business organizations in the Kissimmee area for meetings and get-togethers. Of course volunteers needn't work through another organization. They're welcome to just contact the Village directly.
"Anyone can simply come here and volunteer," said Chief Marketing Officer Kathleen Tagle. "Generally there are 4-hour shifts, so if they want to come on their own, no problem! They just sign up and get scheduled!"
The Village has a special way of preserving the link between GKTW and its guests. In the Castle of Miracles, the walls and ceiling are spangled with literally thousands of stars, each inscribed with the name of a child who has visited the Village, placed there by the Star Fairy.
"The aim of the Star Program is to ensure that every child who comes here has a permanent place in the Village," says Tagle.
"For the families, the program is special because it creates a visual connection and makes them feel that they are always a part of the Village and always welcome here," she says. "For the kids, it is a physical symbol of their place in the hearts and history of Give Kids The World Village, so they know they are always loved here and have a home in our hearts."
The Village always has a home in its visitors' hearts, too. Adrianne says their vacation saw the family through very tough times.
"Right before we came to the Village, Jako was going downhill fast," she says. "The doctors actually didn't even think we would be able to go. Yet, the anticipation of this wish trip was the only thing he looked forward to. While at Give Kids The World Village, my parents saw the light in a very dark time. They saw that childhood spirit return to Jako," she says. "We were all rejuvenated with hope and the power to fight on. Suddenly the uphill battle didn't seem so steep."
Learn more about Kissimmee's Give Kids The World Village.