It was a sad day when we wrote that “Give Kids The World” (GKTW) was shutting down indefinitely. The 89-acre, nonprofit resort in Central Florida has provided weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with critical illnesses and their families for decades. But with COVID lurking and the fragility of some of the kids they serve, they thought it best to close its doors for what would be an unknown amount of time.
The Village and its community partners, along with thousands of volunteers, provide sick kids and their families free accommodations in fully-furnished villas, and offer transportation, tickets to theme parks, meals, daily entertainment and much more, at no cost. As a non-profit organization, they rely on individuals and corporations’ generous donations for all of that to happen. Although many costs were cut because they were closed, some employees had to remain on the payroll for security and maintenance purposes. And, let’s face it – 2020 was a bad year to ask for donations. So GKTW was hurting.
So they came up with another idea to raise money.
For health, safety and privacy reasons, GKTW’s property is usually not open to the public, save for special tours for volunteers and donors. But since the Village currently isn’t being used for sick kids and their families’ dream vacations, they teamed up with Disney, SeaWorld, LEGOLAND, Hasbro, the Kennedy Space Center, a few dozen other sponsors (some local, some not) and a LOT of volunteers, and transformed the village into a holiday light wonderland. They covered their buildings with over 3.3 million lights borrowed from WDW and opened their doors to the general public in an event called Night of a Million Lights.
From GKWT’s website:
For the first time ever, guests can experience the childlike wonder of our magical, whimsical Village during a walk-through, fully immersive holiday light spectacular. Stroll the Avenue of Angels, aglow with more than three million lights; savor delicious treats; and enjoy the accessible rides and storybook attractions that have brought happiness and hope to critically ill children and their families from around the world for 34 years.
The exhibit, which has been running since Nov. 13th, will continue through January 3rd. Tickets are limited due to social distancing, and it’s been sold out for weeks. However, Joe and I bought tickets as soon as we knew about the event and visited on December 22nd. Here are some of the things we saw:
And Joe’s favorite, American Airlines:
Planet Hollywood also had some Christmas-themed memorabilia from Miracle on 34th Street, Home Alone 2, Scrooged, and other popular films:
But for me, the best part was seeing all the lights (I’m HUGE into Christmas lights)
They even gave access to The Castle of Miracles. Every sick kid who has been to GKTW since 1995 has a star with their name on it pasted to the ceiling. There are over 150,000 stars and over the years they’ve even had to add on to the building for more. Y’all, there are WAY too many stars in this building. 🙁
Anyway, to backtrack just a little, as we were counting down the days until we were going to be able to go, we read something wonderful in our local newspaper, The Orlando Sentinel. Besides the fact that they had raised millions of dollars with this event, Pamela Landwirth, the charity’s president and CEO, announced that GKTW will reopen on January 17th!
“We are just so thrilled,” said Landwirth, who said a better understanding of COVID and their ability to pull off this event safely convinced her that reopening could be done. “We know that we can do this safely, and we know that children are out there waiting for their wishes, and we don’t want any more time to pass.”
About 700 sick kids’ wishes to go to GKTW have been postponed every month that the Village has been closed. So the sooner they can start again, albeit safely, the less backlogged they can be.
Plans still need to be finalized, but the Village will be limited to just 25 families per week, which is less than 1/6 of its regular capacity. They’ll also have the families all arrive and depart on the same day (usually different families arrive and depart each day), so new families won’t be added into the mix each day. Of course, temperature checks, questions about potential exposure to COVID, and masks and social distancing will be required. Frequent hand washing will be requested, and they’ll no longer offer buffet-style meals.
We are THRILLED that GKTW will soon reopen. Besides once again allowing sick kids to have their wishes to visit Central FL come true, it also means, symbolically, that we think we understand enough about the virus that they believe they can make those trips safe (or as safe as can be, under the circumstances). And I don’t think GKTW would allow kids to come to Florida and visit theme parks if they didn’t think it could be done safely. This turns out to be an inadvertent response to my post about the possibility of catching COVID at WDW.
We’re also thrilled that this fundraising event was so successful for them. It was a lot of fun but also bittersweet. After all, once kids and their families are back, they can’t do the event ever again. So I’m glad we could experience it during what will probably be the only time it will ever happen.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary