Last week, we traveled to Florida for Andrew’s Make-a-Wish trip. It was an exciting event in many ways. It was our kids’ first plane trip. It was our first visit to Florida. We had tickets to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort, which were places we had wanted to visit long before Andrew’s diagnosis.
The most exciting part of the trip was that it was a celebration of our family’s triumph over cancer. Our hearts were filled with gratitude for Andrew’s good health.
I am planning to write several articles for my travel blog, tipsforfamilytrips.com, about different parts of our trip. These will be filled with tips for other families who are planning a similar trip and more details for those who are curious about what a Make-a-Wish experience is like.
In the meantime, here are the highlights of Andrew’s Make-a-Wish trip to Walt Disney World.
Give Kids the World Village
Make-a-Wish’s website reports that 40% of wishes are Disney-related, and most of these families are sent to Orlando, Florida because of a special place called Give Kids the World Village.
Give Kids the World is a non-profit resort that provides families of children with life-threatening illnesses “weeklong cost-free fantasy vacations.” It works with many wish granting organizations throughout the world. While there is some paid staff, most of the food service, cleaning and activities are done by volunteers.
Our stay at Give Kids the World included a two-bedroom, two-bathroom villa, free meals, a rental car, and tickets to Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort and Sea World. In case that wasn’t enough, Give Kids the World has an on-site ice cream parlor, carousel, pool, splash pad, playground, arcade, mini golf course, and more.
Gifts for our children were delivered to our villa daily and special events, such as horseback riding, fishing and Halloween and Christmas parties, are held each day.
Give Kids the World is an amazing place. If you are interested in donating to this organization or volunteering there during your next visit to Florida, please visit their website.
Star Wars Weekend
Walt Disney World hosts Star Wars Weekends in May and June each year. When we found out about this after Andrew made his wish, we scheduled our trip to make sure Andrew could attend Star Wars Weekend at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
We arrived bright and early to be sure we would be there when the gates opened. We knew that there would be a special Storm Trooper show at the rope drop. Andrew met another Make-a-Wish Star Wars fan about his age, also wearing a Star Wars costume, and they hit it off. We crossed paths with that family several times that day and the two boys were adorable together.
While Chris and the kids stood in the Jedi Training line, I happened to talk to the right employee and got Andrew a wristband to march in the Celebrity Motorcade parade. The celebrities that day were Billy Dee Williams, the actor who played Chewbacca and several voices from the more recent Clone Wars series.
Andrew marched with other kids in front of the celebrities and lots and lots of Star Wars characters, then he stood in front of the stage where the parade ended. Chris marched in the parade too and then joined me and Madeline in the VIP viewing area. Andrew was beaming through the whole experience, and Chris said it was really cool rubbing shoulders with Star Wars celebs backstage before the parade.
Walt Disney World
The other three parks at Disney World are Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom and Epcot. We saw them all. Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom have the fewest attractions, so we visited those two on the same day. Our strategy was to arrive at opening time each day and return to Give Kids the World by dinner time each evening. It worked pretty well.
Give Kids the World provided us with a Guest Assistance Pass and button that allowed us to use the Fast Pass or Handicap lines at every ride. Since we were visiting during peak season, this was an awesome benefit!
Universal Orlando Resort
Universal Orlando Resort has two parks: Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. Chris has been wanting to visit Islands of Adventure for years, so it was disappointing when he wasn’t feeling his best on the day we visited that park. Despite heat, humidity and discomfort, he soldiered on and we can now say that we have been there and done that.
At Islands of Adventure, The Wizarding World Harry Potter was our priority, with Marvel Super Hero Island and Suess Landing close behind. The crowds at Harry Potter were CRAZY! Like Disney, Universal takes care of Make-a-Wish kids, and we were grateful to be escorted to the front of every line. The Harry Potter Forbidden Castle ride was very cool, though the Spiderman 3-D ride was in close competition for the best ride at Universal.
We visited Universal Studios on our last day in Orlando. We were in our groove by then, and it was nice that the park was a little less crowded than Islands of Adventure and Disney’s Magic Kingdom. We were excited to find that the new Transformers 3-D ride, which officially opens next week, was running on a “soft open.” We rode it twice.
We didn’t spend as much time at Sea World as we might have, because we just had too many other things we wanted to do. Sea World gives Make-a-Wish kids and their families a free dolphin feeding experience. We made a beeline to that, and then to the Shamu whale show.
Andrew loves Star Wars, Harry Potter, Spiderman, African safari animals (Animal Kingdom) and marine mammals. His wish for a trip to Orlando was perfect for him because it allowed him to experience all of his passions in one place.
After visiting seven theme parks in six days, we were ready for a vacation from our vacation. We had arranged to extend our trip at our own cost for three extra days, and we were excited to spend some time lounging at the beach.
We chose Clearwater Beach on Florida’s Gulf Coast. It was recommended to us by several people and Chris has relatives who live nearby. We stayed at a fun local motel called Frenchy’s Oasis Motel. This retro-themed motel was located just three blocks from the beach and within an even shorter walk of shops, restaurants, and Clearwater Beach’s central gathering spot – Pier 60. It was perfect for us!
I almost wish that I could say that we did nothing for three whole days, but we aren’t very good at that. We did spend half a day hanging out on Clearwater’s white sand beach, playing in the waves and collecting shells, but then we went in search of what else there is to do in Clearwater.
Clearwater is the home of Winter the Dolphin – the star of the movie Dolphin Tale. We made sure to stop at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to see her. We also took a ferry to Caladesi Island State Park. It is an undeveloped island just north of Clearwater, and we heard it was a good place to collect shells. We did find some nice shells and enjoyed more beach time.
On our last day in Florida, we enjoyed brunch in St. Petersburg with Chris’ cousins. We also made a brief stop to see the Orlando LDS Temple on our way to the airport.
We had such a great trip! It’s hard to believe it’s over, though after the crazy, scary year we’ve had, we will never complain (very loudly) about our boring, normal lives again.
We are grateful to Make-a-Wish, Give Kids the World, Imagine Communications, and all of the volunteers and donors who made this special trip possible for our family.
Disclosure: Frenchy’s Oasis Motel hosted our family at no charge in exchange for a review on Tips for Family Trips. However, my opinions are my own.