Today is Valentine’s Day, and for better or worse, most of our minds are on one thing — love. We have it, we want it, we’d like to forget it exists for the day. For those in the last category, prepare for a change of heart.
Thanks to a special event at Give Kids the World Village this morning, I had the pleasure of spending the beginning of my Valentine’s Day surrounded by folks who were joined together in celebration of the purest kind of love there is: the unconditional kind.
While one of the many things GKTW does is provide critically ill children and families with access to the vast array of exciting Orlando attractions, not every theme park ride can be experienced by everyone. Sometimes, due to illness or disability, access to certain attractions becomes all too difficult. Conditions have to be met to take part in them.
Give Kids the World doesn’t operate on exclusivity, and it’s pretty clear that not a single child’s good time will be neglected under their watch. Case in point: The organization unveiled another fully accessible attraction inside the Village today, one that has a long future of providing fun and entertainment to everyone, regardless of physical restriction.
See? That is some truly unconditional love right there.
The attraction – Kelly’s Sunny Swing — was revealed this morning by Give Kids the World CEO Pamela Landwirth. If you’ve never heard Pam speak before, I encourage you to check out this interview she was gracious enough to give us. (Prepare to finish that video with fewer tissues but more faith in humanity than you had when you started it.)
GKTW has a habit of naming things around the Village after children whose lives, personalities, and stories have had a profound impact on the organization and the folks who work and volunteer there; Kelly’s Sunny Swing is no different.
The origin of this attraction’s name can be found in a letter that Pam carries with her, something she has carried with her every day since October of 1993. The words she always keeps so close to her describe the immense effect that Give Kids the World Village had on an 8-year-old girl and her family. Pam shared the story:
Even though we didn’t meet her, it was a letter we got from the family shortly after their visit that just embodies everything that the Village means, what the experience meant for their family, and how it carried them through some of their darkest hours…It was a very special letter for me, it was a very special letter for Henry — our founder — and we’ve kept it very close to our hearts. And this precious little girl’s name, she was 8 years old and she came to us from Pennsylvania, her name was Kelly.
After a brief but incredibly moving ceremony, Pam unveiled the new ride to a immensely enthusiastic audience. To say that the mood was positive would be an understatement of almost criminal proportions.
I can honestly say this, though: If you’re having trouble finding love this Valentine’s Day, perhaps you are looking for the wrong kind, as it was evident to me this morning that the world is absolutely bursting with it. Love for a beautiful day, love for a wonderful organization, but most importantly, unconditional love for children going through unimaginable difficulties and for the families that support them.
As Wish-mom Stacie Jackley remarked, “This place runs on love, so it’s appropriate to have something like this on Valentine’s day.”
Stacie, her husband Tommy, and their incredibly charismatic children Kaylin and Kellen — a Wish family since 2014 — were absolutely radiating positive vibes this morning. Kellin certainly enjoyed his ride, exclaiming, “It’s very awesome, and I love swings!”
The family also praised Kelly’s Sunny Swing for its accessibility, with Tommy remarking, “Having the wheelchair accessibility built into the middle of it is A-plus too.”
Kaylin was quick to interject and explain the value, saying, “That means that any kid of any age, even if they’re in a wheelchair or crutches, they can still enjoy and be happy here.”
This is not GKTW’s first foray into accessible attractions, of course. Pam reminded the audience that the Village debuted the very first wheelchair-accessible carousel anywhere, the Enchanted Carousel attached to The Castle of Miracles, back in May of 1994 — almost 25 years ago. Since then, they’ve also added JJ’s Express train attraction and Laurie’s Magical Flight, both of which are wheelchair accessible. The Carousel was donated by Vekoma, and the following three have been donated by Italian ride manufacturer Zamplerla.
Lest you think that these donations are simply tax write-offs from distant, emotionless companies, Pam also explained the meaningful relationship that the Village has with Zamperla. “Mr. Zamperla has become a very dear friend over the years,” she said. “I’ll never forget the moment that he came to the Village and we rode Laurie’s Magical Flight together and it was just such an amazing experience for him to turn around and see a child in a wheelchair being able to experience it.”
Now, we all show our love in different ways. Unlike Zamperla, most of us don’t have a quarter of a million dollars to spend on a new ride for critically ill children. That doesn’t make our love any less important, though. That most sublime of emotions is about intention as much as anything else, so whether you are focusing yours into a grand new attraction, a small, manageable donation, or just a bit of free time and effort, directing your love towards Give Kids the World Village guarantees that your heart is in the right place at the right time.
Your heart will be in the right place, because theirs is. They provide everything these families need — from food and lodging to transportation, medical care, access to Orlando theme parks and attractions, and special in-house events — so families with critically-ill children can put their pain, fear, and frustration aside long enough to just enjoy what it means to be a loving family for a little while.
You can make direct donations here, and learn how to volunteer your time here. (You don’t even have to be an Orlando resident; plenty of folks take a day out of their Disney or Universal vacations to lend a helping hand.)
Don’t forget the incredible array of fundraising events that you can get in on either. Check out the Village’s upcoming events here, and keep an eye out for special parks-related ones like An Evening with Ron Logan, where Disney fans can get an inside look into the creation of world-renowned shows like Illuminations and Fantasmic! from one of the minds behind them — former Executive Vice President and Executive Producer of Walt Disney Entertainment Ron Logan himself.