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Walt Disney World theme parks recently re-opened following their four month closure due to COVID-19. For the first time since March all major Florida parks including Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld welcomed guests after shuttering from coronavirus. Some theme park fans rushed to their “happy place” to find smaller crowds and enhanced safety procedures. Others shook their heads and wondered why Florida parks opened at all during a public health crisis. However, one group not found in the parks is “wish children,” as kids with critical illnesses currently have theme park wishes on hold.
“For many of these families, looking ahead to their wish brings hope during extremely dark and trying times.”
Wish families visiting Walt Disney World stay at Give Kids The World Village, a nonprofit resort in Kissimmee, Fla., that partners with Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and wish-granting organizations like Make-A-Wish. When theme parks closed in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Pamela Landwirth, President and CEO of nonprofit Give Kids The World (GKTW), followed government recommendations and halted Village operations to ensure the health and safety of wish families, GKTW staff, and volunteers. In June, Make-A-Wish indefinitely postponed all wishes involving travel or large gatherings due to COVID-19. Jamie Sandys, spokesperson for Make-A-Wish added, “Make-A-Wish has not made any decisions as to when the currently postponed wish types will be safe to resume granting, but remain committed to delivering hope and joy to children with critical illnesses.” Sandys explained that Make-A-Wish continues to work with long-term partners, such as Disney, to “bring some magic at home for children waiting for wishes.”
Unfortunately, the suspension of travel by wish-granting organizations coupled with not knowing when theme parks could welcome these vulnerable children, left GKTW with the difficult decision to close until further notice. The Village laid off 85 percent of their team members (171 workers). COVID-19’s combined impact on wish granters, theme parks, and GKTW caused 700 wish children each month to wait for wishes. “It’s hard for wish children to understand why their wish is on hold,” Landwirth says, “so GKTW works to give them hope while they wait.”
Impact on Wish Families
The small bridge staff remaining at GKTW works to keep spirits up for wish children by sending postcards, birthday cards, and care packages filled with toys and games. For some wish kids, GKTW goes even further.
Addalyne is a child from Alabama whose wish trip was postponed three times – twice because of ICU visits and a third time due to COVID-19.
The wish may be delayed, but Addalyne’s illness is not. On July 7 she turned 10 years old. That celebration was followed by yet another hospital visit and surgery on July 20. To lift Addalyne’s spirits, GKTW arranged a surprise video call with Pam Landwirth and Mayor Clayton, the six-foot tall bunny mascot of the Village. Mayor Clayton gave Addalyne a behind-the-scenes tour including rides on JJ’s Express Train, Kelly’s Sunny Swing, and Lori’s Magic Flight.
Taylor, Addalyne’s mother said her daughter was beginning to lose hope for the wish trip, and the call was, “a much needed dose of sunshine during a not so great time in her life.”
Hope for the future
Theme park fans have debated reopening Florida attractions as COVID-19 cases continue to surge. However, Landwirth says, “you’ve got to look for your own glimmers of hope.” Certainly theme parks give hope, inspiration, respite, and an escape for wish families when it is safe for them to visit.
Once travel and theme parks open fully, those 700 wishes waiting each month will be added to the queue of regularly scheduled wishes.
“For many of these families, looking ahead to their wish brings hope during extremely dark and trying times,” said Landwirth, “a week at the Village is focused on family time, where they can leave the worries of illness behind and enjoy the childlike wonder that our storybook Village and the theme parks create.”