It was time.
After four incredible days at Disney World, it was time to go. Time to walk away from our glorious days of “suspended reality.” Time to offer our thanks and say our goodbyes.
And time to pack an extraordinarily large amount of swag into already-bulging suitcases.
After only a few hours sleep, we set to the task of packing, trying to figure out how to get all of the things we didn’t bring with us−light sabers, souvenirs, food, 20 new t-shirts, 5 so-far-unused rain ponchos, etc.−into our bags. With a little creativity, we managed to find a home for nearly everything before it was time to go to breakfast.
We ended our time at Disney World in much the same way as we started−at the Atlantic Dance Hall for another delicious buffet. When we arrived, the cast was in the middle of the Monday morning broadcast of the show. We found a table close to the side of the stage where we could see both the cast and one of the large TV monitors they had set up in the room. Then we got our food and our much-needed coffee, and settled in to listen to the show.
We never expected to need Kleenex by the time it was over.
Alongside their normal comic bits, the cast shared stories about the trip and the medical journeys of many of the Kidd’s Kids. Some were funny. Some were merely heartwarming. And some were profoundly moving. More than once, Ray and I locked eyes and realized we both were fighting tears. Despite all the excitement, distractions, and energy of the trip, it was impossible to forget that a painful path had led each family there.
Mickey and Minnie were the special guests that morning, posing for pictures and signing autographs. While we were in line for our turn after breakfast, Samantha suddenly said, “They’re talking about Anthony!”
We quickly left our place in line and found a spot on the steps near the stage to listen as Kidd talked about Anthony. First, he shared some of the funnier moments of our Saturday afternoon on the motorboats—Kidd readily admitted his reckless attempts to flip J-Si and Anthony’s boat!−and then he shared some of the details of Anthony’s journey which he had learned from Samantha. This moment was the first time we learned that Kidd and Samantha had talked about Anthony during their boat ride. It was a lovely surprise and a poignant moment to hear Anthony’s story shared so thoughtfully with the KKITM audience. An unexpected public acknowledgement of what Anthony has so bravely endured. I still get misty-eyed when I hear the recording.
Before we left the Dance Hall, we spent some time with Mickey and Minnie, posed for our “TCU Horned Frog” picture with Tim Halperin, and then watched as Anthony took his place with the other Kidd’s Kids for a final group picture with the cast. The smiles on the faces of the children disguised the brutal reality that each one was fighting some form of significant illness.
For the last time, we walked back over the bridge to the hotel from the Boardwalk to finish our packing. Although our flight did not leave until mid-afternoon, check-out was at noon. We had just a few items left to pack, which now also included the contents of the gift bag we received that morning at check-in. Instead of a Kidd’s Kids bag, this bag was from the Princess Alexa Foundation, a non-profit organization which provides “dress-up” opportunities for seriously-ill children. Anthony’s bag contained a red and black knight’s costume, complete with sword and shield. With these new weapons as well as his light saber, Anthony left Disney World armed and ready for battle!
We took our suitcases downstairs to a luggage holding room as we still had a couple of hours before we had to leave for the airport. While we waited, we browsed the hotel’s gift shop for the first time, allowing the kids to spend the rest of their souvenir money. Before we left home, coworkers of our friend, Christy, had donated a rather large amount of money to each of the children to spend on souvenirs. This gift touched us deeply as the kids, for the first time in their lives, were able to purchase what they wanted without worrying about the price tag. Thank you Brownrigg Insurance Agency for your thoughtful, generous donations!
At 2:00, we boarded buses to the airport. When we arrived at the hangar, we walked into a party, similar to the initial departure event, with music, food, games, and more gracious Southwest Employees to greet us. After we ate our delicious lunch provided by Cantina Laredo, Samantha hung out at the basketball goal on one side of the hangar, while Ray, Abby, and Anthony played ball with a young girl confined to a wheelchair on the other side. When it was her turn, they placed the ball in her hand so she could either bounce it to them directly from her hand or hold it under her chin then let it roll down her chest and across the floor. Ray enjoyed watching her work up some speed for the ball by spinning her electric wheelchair around and then letting go of the ball as she came around again. I sat quietly and watched them from our table, struck by what a unique opportunity this trip provided—a chance for these suffering children to connect and to learn that they aren’t alone.
We boarded the plane around 4:00. Abby was my flying buddy on the left, and “RussFace,” the head of social media for KKITM, was on my right. I enjoyed hearing him talk about the trip from a staff member’s perspective. While the families were enjoying the vacation of a lifetime, the staff was working tirelessly behind the scenes, often with only a few hours of sleep each night. It is humbling to realize how many people willingly gave so much of their time and energy to make this happen for our family and for so many others.
When the Southwest Airlines pilot began the descent over Dallas, we laughed as many of the kids, including our own, screamed and threw their hands in the air as if they were still on a ride at Disney World! As was predicted, it was raining when we arrived. Consistent with our excellent treatment throughout the trip, rain ponchos (yes, more rain ponchos!) had been tucked into the pockets of each airplane seat, ensuring that no one would get wet on the way to their cars. No detail was missed!
At first, the crew announced that, because of the rain, one member of each family could de-board the plane and move their vehicle around to the hangar entrance. But later, to make it even easier for us, they changed their plans and decided to pull the plane all the way into the hangar so we all could de-board under the covering of the roof. Could they be any more thoughtful?!
When we walked down the steps, we were warmly greeted by more Southwest Employees holding “Welcome Home” signs. Then Ray left the hangar to get the van while the kids and I waited for our luggage to be pulled off of the plane. While we waited, I was able to thank Kidd personally and say a quick goodbye to some of the families we had come to know.
And then, seemingly suddenly, we were in the van and it was over.
I heard some sniffles from the back of the van as we took one last look at the plane and watched as the other families loaded their luggage into their cars. We waited for Kidd to drive off in the car next to us, and then Ray pulled away, leading us back to reality.
Our trip was over, but I felt no sadness. I was perfectly and completely satisfied that we had just enjoyed one of the best experiences of our entire lives. Quite possibly the best. And one we will never forget.
The words emblazoned on the side of Southwest's Kidd’s Kids’ plane say it all: A smile happens in a flash, but its memory can last a lifetime.
And what a beautiful memory it is.
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We could get used to this.
Day 4 began much like day 3. We awoke in a nice, comfy bed, showered, dressed, and checked in with the Kidd’s Kids staff. Afterward, we enjoyed another delicious breakfast buffet at the hotel with those bright, friendly, and always cheerful Disney characters, Pluto and Goofy. (Chip and Dale joined them this time as well.) And then, for the last time, we were off to the parks!
Unlike Saturday, a group event was scheduled for the morning. After breakfast, we caught a bus to Animal Kingdom where, as is tradition, all of the Kidd’s Kids and their families would watch “Festival of the Lion King,” a Broadway-style musical based on the movie. It didn’t take long for the already busy park to be flooded with over 160 people wearing matching t-shirts.
While we waited outside the theater before the show began, we chatted with a Kidd’s Kids family we had met in the hotel elevator on our first night. They are from the Dallas area, and like us, have a son with congenital heart disease who receives his care at Dallas Children’s. Although their son is a few years older than Anthony, there was an immediate bond between us because of our shared medical journey. We also learned that both parents are degreed musicians, like Ray and I, and that we have several shared acquaintances. We plan to stay in touch with them over the years.
We had heard only good things about the Lion King show, and it did not disappoint. Our only wish was that it had been longer! It was beautifully done with stunning sets, costumes, and choreography. Our family’s particular favorite was the female bird who executed spectacular aerial stunts, à la Cirque du Soleil. Abby was so impressed, she wanted a picture with the dancer when the show was over.
The finale of the show included several of the children from each section of the theater joining the cast for a parade around the circular stage. Some of the Kidd’s Kids who were seated close to the front took part, many of them in wheelchairs. It was beautiful to watch them experience this opportunity, especially with that soaring “Lion King” music as soundtrack.
The Kidd’s Kids families had an opportunity to mingle briefly with the actors after the show, and then a large group of us headed over to the Kilimanjaro Safari. Because there were so many of us and the park was crowded, our wait for a Safari vehicle was probably our longest wait over the entire three days we spent at the parks. No complaints, though. It was worth it.
The safari ride is a journey through the Harambe Wildlife Reserve as if on a savanna in East Africa. Disney’s savanna is 100 acres of natural terrain and all of the animals are free to roam. We saw giraffes, crocodiles, lions, flamingos, warthogs, a baby elephant and more. There was a moment when some giraffes were nearly close enough to touch. Beautiful. In true Disney fashion, a story line is threaded throughout the ride with moments of thrill and intrigue, including a rickety bridge, a washed-out road, and erupting geysers.
Although we enjoyed our time with the other families, when the safari was over we decided to go off on our own for awhile, knowing that we still had a lot of territory we wanted to cover before the day ended.
Our next ride was the Kali River Rapids. Samantha isn’t a huge fan of roller coasters, but she loves rapids rides. From what we saw of the previous riders, we were about to get soaked! Once again, I thought about those five rain ponchos they gave us on our first night. The ones that were still in the gift bag back at the hotel.
As we headed into a 30-foot drop down a waterfall, Ray and I assumed we were going to get the worst of it as our side of the circular raft was going to go down first. At the last moment, however, the raft turned again and the two guys next to us were the ones who were doused with a giant wall of water when we hit the bottom. They were drenched, while the rest of us were only slightly wet. I’m not sure whether the kids were relieved or disappointed!
Next we rode a roller coaster called Expedition Everest. The cars go forward and backward through an artificial, but beautiful, mountain while a yeti “tears up” the track. It is fast, with a gorgeous view of Animal Kingdom during its initial ascent and an exciting drop at the end. Not surprisingly, Anthony and Abby rode it twice after which Anthony proclaimed it as one of the best rides of the trip. Our sweet, thrill-seeking son.
Anthony did eventually find something that scared him, though. After a dizzying, brain-shaking spin on the Primeval Whirl—wow!—Abby, Anthony, and I went on DINOSAUR, a turbulent ride on land rovers back to the time of dinosaurs. The life-size, animatronic dinosaurs elicited screams from Anthony and caused Abby to keep her head down and her eyes closed for the entire ride. Afterward, there was not a single “I want to do it again!” from any of us!
As we were leaving the park, we were surprised by a mother and her young daughter who approached us. The mother gestured to our t-shirts and told us that she donates to Kidd’s Kids.
What do you say to someone who made it possible for you to enjoy a trip of a lifetime with your family? What words could possibly express the extent of our gratitude? A simple “thank you” seemed not enough, but it was all we had to offer.
This woman wasn’t the first. We already had been approached during our stay by people who had contributed, one of whom was a Disney World employee. It was incredibly humbling to meet these people whose generosity brought us there. We later learned that many donors plan their own trips to Disney World around the Kidd’s Kids weekend just so they can see their money in action.
After thanking this mother and daughter as best we could, we left Animal Kingdom and spent the rest of the day at Epcot and Magic Kingdom. Travel between the parks takes some time, but it is relatively easy to get from one park to another. And the chance to sit down and rest was always welcome!
By the time we arrived at Epcot it was near dark, but we still managed to experience most of it. The Test Track was our favorite, riding it twice in a row. The ride takes you through some of the tests GM performs on all of its vehicles, culminating in a 60 mph open-air drive around the track. It was exhilarating and one of our favorite rides of the entire trip.
We finished our time there by walking through Epcot’s World Showcase--pavilions representing eleven countries centered around the lagoon over which we had watched the fireworks on Friday night. These areas are beautiful, depicting the architecture of the country they represent. The next best thing to traveling the world!
When Epcot closed for the night, we headed back to Magic Kingdom. Yes, we were tired. Yes, it was late. But we all agreed we wanted to squeeze as much fun out of this trip as possible.
Magic Kingdom was open for the general public that night until midnight, but for resort guests it stayed open until 3 a.m. On Friday morning, Dr. Kevin had encouraged us to take advantage of those late hours if we had the energy because the crowds would be smaller. He said, “Do as much as you possibly can. You can sleep when the trip is over.”
After contemplating our many “all-nighters” at the hospital with Anthony over the years, we took his advice. Staying up most of the night riding rides at Disney World would be a breeze compared to that!
During the night, we met and talked with one of the Magic Kingdom maintenance coordinators. After complimenting him on how clean the parks were, he told us that when the park closed, the streets would be flooded with workers ready to clean every inch of the park and to repair anything that needed to be fixed. He said, “Even if there were a 10-foot hole in the middle of the street, we’d have it fixed before the park opens again at 8 a.m. and you’d never know it had ever been there.” Impressive!
We stayed at the park until 2:30 a.m., enjoying some things for the first time--Wishes Nighttime Spectacular (a dazzling fireworks show), Main Street Electrical Parade, Peter Pan’s Flight, Snow White’s Scary Adventures, Swiss Family Treehouse, and Prince Charming’s Carousel; and some things for the second time—Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, the Magic Carpets of Aladdin, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, and Splash Mountain. Due to technical difficulties, Ray, Abby, and Anthony got stuck on Splash Mountain, near the giant drop. While Samantha and I stood worrying at the bottom, none of them seemed to mind. Since the maintenance crew turned on the inside lights, they enjoyed seeing parts of the ride people would not normally see, like hidden doors, staircases, and ceiling tiles. A peek behind the curtain!
Anthony desperately wanted to ride Space Mountain again, but they, too, were having technical difficulties that night. This ride was his favorite, and he still is sad he never got to ride it a second time. I am, too.
We discovered we weren’t the only Kidd’s Kids family who stayed out late that night. We ran into several others as well as Tim Halperin, Dr. Kevin, and one of the staff nurses during those wee hours. Even Anthony, who normally has endurance issues, was going strong until we all hit a wall around 2:00 a.m.
After finishing a little bit of souvenir shopping, we went back to the hotel, knowing we had done everything we wanted to do.
Well…except for Space Mountain.
An almost perfect day.
Yes, we definitely could get used to this.
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Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, it did.
Saturday was a “free day.” No group events were scheduled. We slept in, but only a little because we wanted as much park time as possible!
Ray went down for our morning check-in with the staff before we left for breakfast. When he came back, he was carrying another, now familiar, black gift bag bearing the Kidd’s Kids logo.
This one held three Mickey Mouse ears hats, one for each child. Each one was stitched with their name on the back. The quintessential Disney souvenir. Another generous gift.
After we admired this latest surprise, we headed down to one of the hotel’s restaurants for breakfast. Pluto and Goofy were there when we arrived, so the kids had another opportunity for autographs and pictures. We loved the way Pluto signed all his autographs by putting the book on his nose!
Afterwards, we hopped into a water taxi bound for Hollywood Studios. As we traveled, I enjoyed a nice conversation with another Kidd’s Kid family—also a family of five from Texas. When we swapped medical stories—the typical conversation-starter on a trip like this—I learned that their son has spent 600 days of his five years of life in the hospital, suffering from a variety of issues. It was another reminder that, no matter how bad things are, it could always be worse. Like Anthony, however, their son’s problems did not prevent him from enjoying everything Disney World had to offer.
When we arrived at Hollywood Studios, we had not yet made a plan. We just started walking forward from the entrance and happened upon the “Disney Channel Rocks!” show on an open-air stage in the center of the park. The singers and dancers performed well-known songs from several of the kids’ favorite Disney Channel movies. We really enjoyed it, especially since we were able to watch it all from the front row.
During the show, Tim Halperin invited us to go with him to Tower of Terror when it was over. Now, I like most amusement park rides. I even love many of them. But Tower of Terror seemed really scary to me. I agreed to go, but I definitely was a reluctant rider. Plunging several stories down a dark freight elevator over and over again just didn’t sound appealing.
As we walked to the ride, Ray discovered that Tim was a graduate of TCU, his own alma mater. They had a great time sharing stories, culminating in a picture on Monday with Tim and our family doing the Horned Frog hand sign. How in the world did I let them rope this SMU grad into posing for a picture like that?!
By the time we reached the Tower of Terror, our group was larger than when we started. The whole cast was now there--Kidd, Big Al, J-Si, Jenna, and Kellie—plus enough Kidd’s Kids families to split into two groups for the ride.
Early on, Samantha had decided she was not going to ride Tower of Terror, so when Kellie Rasberry tried to convince her to change her mind, she stuck to her guns. Samantha and Carolyn, a Kidd Kraddick staff member, willingly became the purse holders. During their conversation, Samantha learned that Carolyn grew up in Port Arthur, where Samantha was born, and she played in the band during high school, just as Samantha does now, giving them a lot to talk about. Apparently “purse holding” wasn’t so bad.
The rest of our family ended up in the same group as the cast. One of the interesting things about this trip was seeing how all the “production” details have to be arranged. We all had to make a few seating adjustments to make sure the entire cast could be seen by the cameras. After the seat switch, I ended up in the back row corner next to Big Al with Ray in front of him and Abby and Anthony on the opposite side. I was a bit concerned about them being far from us in case they got scared, but they were fine. Abby said they huddled together and held hands the whole time. Sweet.
Big Al told us earlier that he didn’t enjoy thrill rides very much, so he spent nearly the entire ride singing Christmas carols as a distraction. (He and Samantha already had been singing part of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” just before the ride.) I spent the ride laughing at him and doing a good bit of screaming, but I loved it! I felt like yelling, “Again!” when it was over, just like Anthony!
Next, we all went to the Rockin’ Rollercoaster which we learned goes from zero to 60 mph in 2.8 seconds! Abby was willing but nervous, and Samantha was reluctant. Sensing Samantha’s hesitation, Kellie shared a story about getting over her early fear of roller coasters—a friend pinched her until she rode one, and she discovered she liked it! Without so much as one pinch, Kellie was able to convince Samantha to ride with her.
What an exciting ride! We all loved it. (Ray and Anthony—those brave souls—rode it twice!) Even Abby, as nervous as she was at the beginning, was singing along with the Aerosmith track by the end of the ride. And we have three 8 x 10 photographs showing how each of us looked as the cars took off. Priceless! (and slightly embarrassing.)
After the ride, Kellie took Samantha aside to do an on-camera interview. Kellie was so glad Samantha decided to ride the roller coaster and even happier that she enjoyed it!
Before we left the building after the ride, I was approached by the Operations Manager of KKITM. He asked if our family would be interested in going outside of the park with some of the cast for awhile to do something they had never done before on the Kidd’s Kids trip—drive Sea Raycers (small, two-man motorboats) on Lake Buena Vista near Magic Kingdom. It sounded like a lot of fun, so we said yes.
They ushered us, along with Kidd, J-Si, and Jenna, out of Hollywood Studios through an employee exit into a back parking lot. Ray and I noticed immediately that the parking lot was just as clean as the parks. Really impressive. It was an interesting view seeing the park from this side; it looked like the back of a movie set.
We piled into vehicles and were driven over to the Contemporary Resort to grab a quick lunch. The Contemporary sits close to Magic Kingdom and is built around the Disney World Monorail. In fact, the Monorail goes right through the hotel restaurant where we ate lunch.
While we were getting our food, unbelievably, Samantha saw one of her classmates from home! He had just arrived at the hotel after taking his first plane ride. It was all quite serendipitous as we never expected to be eating lunch in that restaurant nor expected to be in that hotel at all.
After lunch, we walked down to the marina near the hotel. We learned that each of our children would get to ride in a boat with one of the cast members. The big question was with whom Anthony, as the Kidd’s Kid, would choose to ride. Each cast member made their cases to him; each fighting to be the one chosen. Their antics plunged Anthony into a fit of giggles which prolonged the whole process—all, while the cameras were rolling. Eventually, Anthony narrowed it down to Kidd and J-Si and then ultimately chose J-Si. We’re not sure whether J-Si was more excited about being chosen or about “beating” his competition!
Everyone climbed into the boats. Anthony, of course, rode with J-Si; Samantha, with Kidd; Abby, with Jenna. Ray manned one by himself while I rode on the pontoon boat with the camera crew. As it turned out, it was the safest…and the driest…place to be.
As soon as they pulled away from the marina, the craziness began. Apparently, there was a competition to see who was the fastest and, if Kidd’s driving was any indicator, the wildest! Ray decided to stay out of the fray, but close enough to make sure all the kids were safe.
J-Si and Jenna were quick, yet tame, but Kidd was quick and doing stunts! He sat on the back of the boat, drove back and forth in front of a passing cruise ship, and turned the boat so hard at one point that I thought Samantha was going to fall out! She smiled and laughed the whole time so I guess she wasn’t scared at all. She was, however, wet by the end of the ride. Really wet. (Her phone didn’t even work until the next day, after it had a chance to dry out!)
After all the craziness, everyone settled down for a relaxing ride back to the marina. During this time, Kidd had a serious talk with Samantha about Anthony. She did a wonderful job explaining Anthony’s condition to him and sharing the details of his medical journey. On our last day at Disney, during the morning broadcast of the show, Kidd recounted his conversation with Samantha, beautifully sharing Anthony’s story with the listeners.
As funny and silly as he can be, it is clear that Kidd is a very compassionate man with a genuine concern for all of the Kidd’s Kids and their families. He even took the time to “tweet” me a picture of him with Samantha during their ride together. We feel honored to have had this special time with him and his cast. It was the highlight of the trip for all of us. (Although Space Mountain still ranks pretty high with Anthony.)
After the boats, the staff drove us back to Hollywood Studios with J-Si. We enjoyed a nice conversation about his start in radio, his family, and football. After so much activity, it was nice to relax and just chat with him for awhile.
The staff asked what ride we wanted to ride when we returned to the park—our choice was Toy Story Mania—so they dropped us off in the parking lot right behind it. A Disney employee was already there to meet us when we arrived, ready to escort us directly to the ride. Honestly, this trip has ruined us for any future trips to Disney or anywhere else for that matter. First class treatment from start to finish.
After such a busy afternoon, we decided to spend the rest of our time at Hollywood Studios alone as a family. Although we all were beginning to get tired, we still had time and energy to see three shows: “Lights! Motor! Action!,” “Muppet*Vision 3-D,” and “Walt Disney: One Man’s Dream.” We loved all of these shows—partly because they were entertaining and partly because we all could sit down!
We also made time for a couple of rides—“The Great Movie Ride” and “Star Tours.” “Star Tours” is a turbulent, simulated ride through space, based on the “Star Wars” movies. During the ride, Samantha’s picture popped up on a screen as if on a “Wanted” poster; she had been identified by Darth Vader as a rebel spy aboard our spaceship!
Before our trip, Kidd’s Kids sent us a thorough questionnaire about Anthony’s interests and wishes. One of the questions was: “What is the one thing you want to bring home from Disney World?” As a big fan of “Star Wars,” Anthony’s answer was simple: “A light saber.”
After the “Star Tours” ride, both Anthony and Abby, a “Star Wars” fan herself, were able to design and make their own light sabers to take home, purchased, by the way, with Disney Dollars provided by Kidd’s Kids. (Every need was anticipated and met during this trip.) Anthony couldn’t have been more excited to have, finally, his own light saber. (And someone to duel with!) A wish, fulfilled.
We continued to wander the park well after dark, enjoying the gorgeous Christmas lights before we caught the water taxi back to the hotel. After we took a quick walk on the Boardwalk, we grabbed some food in one of the hotel restaurants and fell into bed, tired, yet content, wondering how so much fun could be crammed into just one day.
Must have been the magic of Kidd’s Kids…
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Our alarms went off at the same time they do at home, but apparently Disney World is a better motivator than work or school to get up and go. We couldn't wait to start our day!
First on the itinerary was a group breakfast event back at the Atlantic Dance Hall. As we checked in with the staff in the lobby, we knew we would receive the day's schedule, our meal cards (they provided all meals via cards to use either at the hotel or at the parks), and our park passes. We didn't, however, expect to receive Disney autograph books and pens for each of the children as well as a digital camera for the family. Just one surprise after another.
When we entered the Hall, we saw that the broadcast of the KKITM show was already in progress. We got our food from the buffet--fresh fruit, pastries, eggs, bacon, sausage, and Mickey Mouse waffles--and found an available table as close to the stage as possible, knowing there would be a surprise celebrity guest during the morning's show. (Another excellent motivator to get going that morning!)
We didn't wait long before the surprise was revealed. Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush"--a band of four extremely cute (at least according to the girls...and…ok, I admit it...according to me, too) young men made their way on stage to talk with the cast and perform for the families. By the looks on the faces of our children, particularly on the faces of our two female children, the show made a wise choice for the surprise guest! Lots of smiles, pictures, and autographs ensued.
While the kids rubbed elbows with the celebrities, Ray and I struck up a conversation with one of the Kidd's Kids doctors who helped us make a plan for the day. Dr. Kevin serves on the Kidd's Kids board and has been on the trip many times before, so he was able to offer us a lot of advice about where to eat at the parks and how to manage our schedule over the next few days, even offering to take our kids around the park for us sometime if we found we needed to go back to the hotel to rest.
Although we didn't take him up on it, his offer was extremely generous. For us, being together as a family after such a difficult year was the priority. But for other parents, I can see that an offer like his would give them a much-needed break, especially for those who have children with extreme physical disabilities and/or for those who are parenting alone. (And there were many on this trip.) After watching and talking with the members of the medical staff throughout the weekend, I recognize that their presence is as important for the parents as it is for the children.
When the morning show was over, we walked back over the bridge to the hotel and caught a bus headed to the parks. It was flooded with Kidd's Kids families, all in matching t-shirts. The staff gave us a "t-shirt schedule" on the first night so that each day we all would match. Since the parks stay relatively crowded, the t-shirts were a great way to help keep our own small family group together as well as recognize the other Kidd's Kids families in the parks.
We received three-day hopper passes which allowed us to "hop" between the four parks--Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom--whenever we wanted. Since the kids were most interested in riding rides, we started at Magic Kingdom. We rediscovered, rather quickly, that Anthony is fearless.
Our second ride was Space Mountain, a frenetic roller coaster with lots of dips and dives and twists and turns. Since most of it happens in the dark, it is impossible to prepare for what is to come. Some of us loved it. Some of us screamed from start to finish. And some of us tried not to leave our stomachs somewhere inside the building.
When it was all over, Anthony said, "Again!"--which he said after pretty much every ride he rode.
For three days.
When Dr. N wrote his consent letter for the trip, he gave permission for Anthony to ride any ride he chooses, saying "I'm sure his courage will be up to it." He was right!
We spent the rest of the day riding ride after ride, feeling extreme gratitude to Kidd's Kids for the "Guest Assistance Pass" each family received with their park passes. This special card allowed us to get on the rides almost immediately, sometimes even entering through an alternate entrance, bypassing the long lines. As a result, we were able to fit in all the rides we wanted to ride and, more importantly, prevent Anthony from wearing out too quickly.
We noticed, although only occasionally, curious or even resentful looks from some people as we were led ahead of them to the front of the rides. Whenever we encountered them, Ray thought to himself, "This isn't a club you want to be in." He is so right. We would gladly wait in line...no...we would gladly not even go...if it meant Anthony could be free of his heart disease. No special privilege is worth more than the health of our child.
Mid-afternoon, we ran into Big Al and his "pod" of production staff. They invited us to watch an afternoon parade with him and some of the other families. Big Al has a bigger than life personality and made everything fun. After the parade, we rode the teacups, then Anthony's choice--Big Thunder Mountain Railroad--of course, another roller coaster. The camera man sat in the front car and filmed the ride with his video camera facing backwards, over his shoulder. I can't imagine trying to keep a camera steady on a ride like that, especially since my own hands stayed all but glued to the bar. The result was a great video of Anthony and Big Al, documenting another of Anthony's pleas to "do it again" when the ride was over!
The rest of the day included Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, It's a Small World, Aladdin's Magic Carpet, and the Haunted Mansion. Afterwards, we had just enough time left to catch the monorail to attend the evening's group activity--a dessert party and the Illuminations fireworks show at Epcot. Hot chocolate, dessert, fireworks, and family. Excellent combination!
We finished the day with a ride on "Spaceship Earth" inside the big "ball" at Epcot and then a relaxing water taxi ride back to the hotel.
A beautiful end to another beautiful day.
Well...not exactly the end.
When we returned to the hotel, we discovered yet another gift bag had been delivered to our hotel room. Stuffed animals, pencils, wristbands, cups--all generously donated by more people we've never met.
There was some serious spoiling going on…
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Kidd Kraddick says that the Kidd's Kids trip offers families five days of "suspended reality." He couldn't be more right. We returned from our trip Monday evening, November 21 exhausted, but exhilarated. Tired, but thankful. Happy, but...no...just happy. The trip was everything we thought it would be and more. Much more. It all began last Thursday. After driving by Dallas Children's--let me emphasize the "driving by" part, no stopping necessary!--we arrived at Southwest Airlines Headquarters near Love Field at 10 a.m., right on time. We parked, pulled our luggage out of the van, and carried it only a few feet before we were greeted by a team of Kidd's Kids volunteers and Southwest employees who warmly welcomed us and began checking our luggage. We didn't see or touch it again until it was delivered directly to our hotel room in Orlando Thursday evening. And so began our royal treatment. After our luggage was checked, we were surprised--no, "stunned" is a better word--to see three of our favorite Ronald McDonald House staff--Jill, Norma, and Janet--arriving to help see us off! (Just as Southwest Airlines is a huge supporter of Kidd's Kids, they also are significant donors to the RMHD.) We couldn't have been happier to share the departure event with these three ladies who have been such a wonderful support for our family. Or more touched to know they gave up part of their day to spend it with us. After taking a couple of pictures, we piled into two golf carts and were driven back to the hangar. As we turned the corner, we saw a beautiful and imposing sight--the chartered plane bearing the Kidd's Kids logo, ready and waiting for us to board. If reality hadn't already set in, it did then. We really were going to Disney World. But first...the departure event! When we entered the hangar and saw two statues of "Oscar" and a red carpet, we knew we were in for a special time. The hangar was filled with balloons, people, games, and food. It was a real celebration, and, by the way we were treated, we and the other Kidd's Kids families were the celebrities. We had about an hour to enjoy the festivities before boarding. And we made the most of it-- We... ...took pictures and chatted with Big Al, J-Si, and Kellie Rasberry, all cast members of the Kidd Kraddick in the Morning radio show; ...played on the Wii game system they had available (Abby won "Just Dance" three times in a row!); ...were briefly interviewed by Mix 93.1, the Tyler radio station which broadcasts Kidd's show in our area; ...ate yummy food provided by El Chico and Ultimate Cupcake (strawberry with cream cheese icing...mmmm!); ...met some of the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders (pretty sure Ray would call that a highlight); ...were introduced to several Southwest Airlines employees, including the pilot of the plane who we learned also sometimes volunteers at the RMHD; ...enjoyed the antics and banter of the cast as they called out the name of each Kidd's Kid; ....walked back down the red carpet, flanked by an enthusiastic, cheering crowd, to board the plane; ...went through a security protocol designed for the special needs of the children; ...clapped (while I choked back tears) when the Love Field firemen gave us a water salute as we turned toward the runway ...and waved back at the watching crowd, many of whom lined the roof of the Southwest Headquarters building, while we taxied down the runway. I can't imagine a better or more moving send-off. The plane ride was great with lots of cheering and excitement in the air. We enjoyed meeting some of the Kidd's Kids volunteer medical staff who all serve in different capacities around the metroplex--doctors, nurses, child life specialists, etc. Just like Camp Moss, Anthony's summer heart camp, Kidd's Kids also provides this mind-easing safety net for the families. After safely arriving at the Orlando airport, we boarded the buses which would take us to the Swan Hotel. Watching the other families de-board the plane was emotional for me. Like many children on the trip, Anthony's illness is not visibly apparent. But other children's are. Many are unable to walk. It was touching to watch Big Al, Kidd, J-Si, and the doctors gently carrying these children down the steep steps off the plane. A brief, but beautiful snapshot of what this trip is all about. When we arrived at the hotel we were met by more of the Kidd's Kids staff who gave us a bag filled with the key to our room, a cell phone (preprogrammed with the cell numbers of every other family and the medical staff) to use during our stay, and information about the evening's group event. Another bag was waiting for us when we arrived in our room. This one was filled with four days worth of Kidd's Kids t-shirts, five rain ponchos, and five windbreakers embroidered with the Kidd's Kids and Southwest Airlines logos. (I sure wish we had remembered to bring those ponchos with us to Splash Mountain the next day...) We had just a few minutes to get settled and freshen up before it was time to walk down to the Atlantic Dance Hall on the Disney Boardwalk for a group dinner event. The resort grounds were beautiful and the weather, perfect. Dinner was a delicious buffet with decadent Mickey Mouse ice cream treats for dessert. While we ate, "Psycho Shanon", one of the KKITM's show staff, deejayed. I think our kids sang along through most of the meal! After dinner, we stood on the balcony of the dance hall which had a beautiful view of the water, the boardwalk, and the big ball at Epcot. Later, a very talented caricature artist drew a picture of Anthony as a master Jedi with R2D2 and C3PO by his side. A depiction of every 8-year-old boy's dream. At least the dream of our 8-year old boy. Before the night was over, Kidd welcomed the families and introduced Tim Halperin, a former American Idol contestant, who performed three songs for the families, one of which he wrote specifically for this year's Kidd's Kids trip. Afterwards, Belle and the Beast came out for a dance. It was a lovely evening. Earlier, while we waited in line for dinner, we talked about how excited we all were, how beautiful everything was, and how wonderful the day had been so far. Suddenly, Anthony, with an impish smile on his face, gestured toward himself and said, "And who do you have to thank?" We all burst into laughter. Who else but Anthony could put a positive spin on a life-threatening medical condition?! I hugged him and said, "I wish you didn't have this heart defect, but, you're right, we wouldn't be here without you..." ...and Kidd Kraddick, and Southwest Airlines, and the Kidd's Kids staff, and all the generous donors, and our friend Christy who nominated us, and... So many people. And so much for which to be thankful.
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