The world’s most magical place is not somewhere you would ever hope to go. Admittance is sacred, special, and limited to the very few who are lucky enough to receive an all-expenses-paid trip to central Florida to be fêted as guests of honor, though some might say it is a very lack of luck or felicity that brought them here in the first place: a damning of atoms, a genetic wild card. To be lucky enough to visit this place, you will be unlucky enough to be a child with a critical illness, or someone in their constellation. But here, at Give Kids the World Village, these illnesses seem to matter a little less, if only for a week. Here you fly. Here, you are in most excellent company.
Of the roughly 27,000 children in the United States diagnosed with a critical illness every year, a majority are eligible to have wishes granted through organizations such as the Dream Factory or Make-A-Wish, which considers eligible any child age 3–18 with a “progressive, degenerative or malignant condition that has placed the child’s life in jeopardy.” Roughly half of these 27,000 children wish to come to the Orlando area, where Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld dance just down the street from each other. But many of these children and their families stay 22 miles south on the Florida Turnpike, at Give Kids the World Village, where, once they arrive, they realize they’d rather not fill their days at Disney or SeaWorld after all. They’d prefer to spend their time there. At the 89-acre storybook resort that was designed just for them, once upon a time.
“I see life differently from someone who has not seen life’s dark side,” Henri Landwirth, founder of Give Kids the World, wrote in his 1996 memoir, Gift of Life. “Moments are precious, every moment.”
In the Beginning
Henri Landwirth was born in Antwerp, Belgium, on March 1, 1927, along with his twin sister, Margot, to Jewish clothing salesman Max Landwirth and his wife, Fanny. In 1930, the Landwirths moved to Poland, compelled by Max’s belief that more opportunity awaited there—in his home country—than in Belgium. For years, there was.
In 1939, the year Germany invaded Poland and initiated World War II, Max was taken without reason to a prison called Radom and incarcerated, held without trial. Fanny traveled to see him every day, but never made it past the first guard. In time, Henri, Fanny, and Margot were herded into the Krakow ghetto and later packed into train cars. Henri arrived at Auschwitz, where he became no one to camp guards but prisoner B4343, identified by the tattoo on his left forearm. “To be treated in a manner which is beneath that of an animal is at once both confusing and frightening,” he wrote. “What words can convey the total lack of dignity that takes over a person’s soul when such unimaginable events suddenly become the only reality?” He was 13.
Nearly five years passed. In that time, Henri was shuttled between Auschwitz, Mauthausen, Płaszów, Gusen, and Ostrowitz. He worked on guns designed to shoot down Allied planes, and dug underground in unnamed places. In 1943, at Auschwitz, Henri learned his mother was also at the camp. He went to see her. She smiled and asked him: “You wouldn’t have an extra piece of bread, son, would you?” Henri did not. Later, he learned she’d been loaded onto a boat with thousands of other Jewish prisoners, never to return to any sort of shore. His father had been shot outside the prison in Radom.
In 1944, Henri was recaptured after an escape attempt. Three German soldiers marched him and two other Jewish prisoners to the woods. There, on the forest’s edge, one of the “great miracles” of Henri’s life took place: “The war is almost over. I don’t want to kill these people,” one of the soldiers said. The others shrugged. When I raise my gun, run into the woods, Henri recalled the soldier telling him. The soldier raised his gun and then lowered it. Henri ran.
Henri ran, walked, and limped until he found an empty house and collapsed. Later, he would learn the house was in the city of Dvůr Králové, near Prague. He had traveled from one country to another. Nearly 18 then, Henri was treated for gangrene in his legs and an infection from a fractured skull. When the war officially ended in 1945, he returned to Krakow, where he worked for a dentist and took a trolley to the Missing Persons Center every day at 1 p.m., hoping for news about his family. Soon, he heard a rumor that Margot was alive and living in a small town in the center of Germany, some 500 miles away. He left to find her. Once he reached her reported address, he whistled a tune they’d whistled to each other during childhood—one only she would recognize. In minutes, she whistled back.
In 1950, Henri bade farewell to Margot and Belgium and sailed to New York City as a deck laborer with $20 and a Torah. He had a sixth-grade education and a basic command of English, but soon got a job cutting diamonds in Midtown Manhattan. All was well, sort of, until Henri received a letter from the president, Harry S. Truman—a draft notice for the Korean War.
Henri served two years as a telephone repairman stateside, in Fort Dix, New Jersey. After his discharge, by day, Henri studied hotel management on the G.I. Bill. By night, he worked the desk at Manhattan’s Wellington Hotel on Seventh Avenue and 59th Street. In 1954, he went to Miami on his honeymoon with his then-wife Josephine and never returned north. Soon, he was manager at the President Madison Hotel in Miami Beach, making $120 a week. He was 27 years old.
One evening, Henri loaned a tie to a man who had forgotten to bring his own and needed one to dine in the hotel’s restaurant. What providence: That man was B.G. McNabb of General Dynamics, who was responsible for helping develop the new space program at Cape Canaveral. There was no hotel in the area for the astronauts, so McNabb was building one with 100 rooms. He called it the Starlite Motel. One problem: McNabb had no one to run the Starlite Motel. Days later, he directed his employees to go to the President Madison Hotel and find the manager he remembered. “I can’t tell you his name,” McNabb said. “But he had a funny accent.”
In the early days of space exploration, preparing to bask in the glow of the stars, the astronauts lived there at that Starlite Motel managed by Henri. Dubbed Project Mercury astronauts, they included Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, and John Glenn, who would become Henri’s business partner and godfather to one of his children. The astronauts gave Henri a photo with an inscription that read, “To Henri, Keeper of the Cape, the service is outstanding and the rates so reasonable!” Later, they would also gift him an American flag they’d taken to space. “This flag has been to the moon, which is good—and it has returned to earth, which is even better—,” they wrote.
Though Henri himself never reached space, his ascent on this planet continued, and by 1969, he had franchised his first Holiday Inn near Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando. Because of the hotel’s proximity to the theme park, wish-granting organizations often asked Henri if he would donate free rooms to children and their families needing a place to stay. He always said yes.
One day, Henri noticed that a free reservation for a young girl named Amy had been canceled. He asked why. In the time it had taken the organization to arrange for her transportation to Disney World, Amy, who had leukemia, had passed away. Henri was upset.
What if it happened again? What if another child simply ran out of time?
And so he did something about it.
Henri started Give Kids the World in 1986 with the idea of bringing together foundations, corporations, and individuals to benefit critically ill children and their families. He had public backing from the Project Mercury astronauts and Walter Cronkite and received verbal commitments from Disney and SeaWorld that they would offer free park visits and character meet-and-greets. He got 87 Orlando hotels to give the organization five free rooms for every 100 they had. That first year, the collective brought 380 families to Florida. It soon became evident that the need was greater than the supply, and so Henri began thinking bigger—an entire village bigger.
In 1989, Henri opened Give Kids the World Village on 31 acres in Kissimmee, Florida, with a board of representatives from Disney, Universal, PepsiCo, Discovery, Hershey, and Hasbro. Though Henri died in 2018 at age 91, one year after his twin sister, his mission has continued: In the 35 years since its inception, the park has grown to cover 89 acres and include 166 villas. It has welcomed more than 176,000 families from 50 states and 76 countries—Kuwait, Argentina, the United Kingdom, Canada, you name it. Per Henri’s founding principles, no “wish” child wanting to visit has ever been turned away, no matter how little notice the village is given nor how full the villas. There is always room.
In many senses, Give Kids the World Village resembles a small theme park, albeit more whimsical than wild and less commercial than its counterparts. Inside the Castle of Miracles is a forest with a magic tree that makes pillows; under a giant red and white mushroom is the Enchanted Carousel, which has 22 hand-carved seats in the shape of animals. Two of them—the snail and turtle—are wheelchair accessible.
In the Star Tower, more than 132,000 stars light up the ceiling, and Stella the Star Fairy helps each wish child place their own star high above, making the children forever permanent in at least one night sky. There are free movies at Julie’s Safari Theatre, wheelchair-accessible rides, and swimming pools where visitors can roll right into the water, thanks to the park’s supply of water-safe wheelchairs.
At Give Kids the World Village, days pass as lightly and easily as sand slipping over an upturned palm, as if the torment of the world is shushed once you reach the property. One parent told me it is as if the desperation of the moment is gone. Another said it was a feeling “impossible to explain.” For children who are often othered, here, they are normal in an abnormal situation. They are the reason everyone is celebrating and having the best vacations of their lives. After all, it is a vacation—a vacation from chemotherapy, radiation, blood draws, injections, shots, surgeries, scans, transfusions, and that sterile smell of hospital.
All of that is far from mind at Give Kids the World Village, where bodies are only targets during Lazer Tag, and actual targets are themselves taken on at the archery course for teenagers, arrows ribboning through the air with a pfffttttt. Children hop around the striped board of the world’s largest CANDY LAND game, slip down purple slides, and weave through seven-foot-tall candy canes. From 7:30 in the morning until 9:30 at night, unlimited milkshakes, ice cream cones, banana splits, and sundaes are on offer at Henri’s Starlite Scoops, a $2 million space-themed building topped with a 30-foot UFO and designed with accessible ice cream chest freezers. Every evening, a Cookie Cart rolls between villas for two hours, serving freshly baked cookies and hot chocolate. Ask for a cookie, and volunteers will say, “Are you sure you don’t want two or three?” Actor John Stamos, who has quietly visited the village for more than 20 years, will often drop by unannounced to meet children. The gift shop is the only place visitors have to pay for anything, ever.
Still, says Pamela Landwirth, Henri’s ex-wife, who has been president and CEO of Give Kids the World Village since 1995, it is not a theme park. And the particulars are important. “The theme park industry wants to create that perfect experience because they want their guests to keep coming back over and over,” she says. “We want to create that perfect guest experience because our guests get one shot. So the question is, How do we cram a lifetime of experiences into a week?”
The result is programming that reflects just that: Ms. Merry’s Tea Party is every Sunday at the Peppermint Table. Halloween is celebrated on Mondays. Tuesday evenings are marked by fishing at the Park of Dreams pool and celebrating the birthday of Mayor Clayton, a six-foot-tall bunny rabbit who is the “mayor” of the village and partner to Ms. Merry. Wednesday there’s a concert competition à la American Idol. Thursday, a celebration at a Winter Wonderland, Friday a bash with costumes, and Saturday is all about summertime fun. At Give Kids the World Village, it’s 365 days of the year condensed in one week. It’s only the highlight reel, just the hits and the holidays. “I spent 16 wonderful years of my career at Disney, and they call that the happiest place on earth,” says Landwirth. “But I think we outshine that.”
Experiences at Give Kids the World Village are also highly personalized. Weeks before families arrive, volunteers call the children to ask: What’s your favorite color? Your favorite food? Are there any Disney or Universal characters you want to meet? What do you really want to see and do? They then set out to make wishes come true. Rarely do they not succeed.
One teenager named Micah, who had an illness undetectable to the naked eye, told volunteers he felt like an outsider at school, invisible and unimportant. When Micah arrived at Give Kids the World Village, he was led to the castle and greeted by royal subjects, then crowned by a knight and dressed in all shades of blue. He was shown to a custom throne, where he could sit and gaze out over his court.
Another Give Kids the World Village visitor, Anna, a young girl in a wheelchair, wanted to feel like a princess and dance with her father. When Anna was on her trip, Belle from Beauty and the Beast visited from Disney World to help Anna choose a gown and give her a makeover. Anna’s dad then lifted her from the wheelchair, and they twirled around the room. “We start everything with ‘yes,’” Landwirth says of wish requests. “Think about the happiest day of your life. Didn’t you feel like you were on top of the world, and nothing was going to bring you down?”
The Traveler’s Soul
More than money, a vacation’s value is often measured by how much time you have to spend, and how you spend it. Vacation’s Latin root word, vacare, suggests it as a period to “be empty, be free from, be unoccupied, be idle, be vacant.” This adherence to the idea has been true since Ancient Rome. Taking advantage of periods of peace, citizens traveled for months, following early guide books like the 10-volume Pausanias’s Description of Greece. In the time of the Tudors, monarchs deemed vacation “royal progress,” and in the 19th century, the industrial revolution freed up the well-to-do to travel, by steamship, between London and New York. Much has changed over those centuries, but a key truth remains: Vacation has most often been reserved for people able to take leave from their everyday responsibilities. People who have the time.
It is practically impossible to be unoccupied, idle, and vacant when you have a child with a critical illness. Annually, critical illnesses can cost upwards of $7,000 out of pocket for treatment, not to mention the indirect financial toll: home renovations, custom transportation, childcare for other siblings. But most acute, perhaps, is this very fundamental lack of time—time to take “off” due to the responsibilities associated with care, and sometimes, time in a sense of what remains. With a child who has a critical illness, when there is a window to take a vacation, it is often because the balance has tipped toward that second type of time. There is little of it left.
Marc McConnell was born an identical twin on July 6, 1987, as the youngest of five siblings. Ten years later, in August 1997, Marc was diagnosed with chronic myelogenous leukemia. To combat the disease, he had six bone marrow transplants, myriad stem cell boosts, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy and full-body radiation. “It was an unending roller-coaster ride between life and death,” says Marc’s mother, Jill.
In that time—in those years following his diagnosis—Marc was seldom away from the hospital near his hometown of Loup City, Nebraska. Less than two years after his initial diagnosis, in March of 1999, doctors informed Marc that his liver was failing. He would most likely not live more than six weeks. Marc had a request for his family: Could they go on a trip? It was the one thing he wanted to do as a gesture of thanks. Doctors cautioned Jill that Marc would likely die in transit, but she took her cue from her youngest son, and in less than 10 days, they were traveling to Florida. It was the family’s first time flying on an airplane.
That week at Give Kids the World Village was full of many such firsts for the McConnell family: the first time staying at a resort, the first time going out to dinner and sitting down to order off a menu, the first time seeing palm trees. Petting Shamu! Every day ended with an explosion of fireworks—actual ones—thundering and crackling in the night sky.
When the week was over, Marc left Florida, Jill says, with a renewed spirit. Back in Nebraska, after doctors ran scans to chart the disease’s progression, they were dubious that Marc had merely spent five days enjoying the rustle of the palm trees and the feel of sun on his skin. His liver had healed. What else had he done? “I told you, that place is a piece of heaven on earth,” Marc insisted.
Marc shared messages of thanksgiving and hope as an ambassador for Make-A-Wish, the American Red Cross, Lied Transplant Center, and the Eppley Institute for Research in Cancer and Allied Diseases at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He was a guest DJ for Sweet 98.5, his sunny voice shining over all of Omaha. He was in pamphlets, videos, advertisements, and on posters. He made gifts for those who had helped and encouraged him: clay angels, original poems, and hand-drawn bookmarks he spelled “bookmarcs.”
In 2000, Marc was invited to submit an essay about his trip for consideration in Chicken Soup for the Traveler’s Soul. He had no doubt his story would be published, and that he would soon be sitting in an air-conditioned Barnes & Noble, signing books for a crowd that snaked through the store. Though Marc’s leukemia was in remission, he died on July 3, 2001, from graft-versus-host disease, before his dream could be realized. He was three days shy of 14.
“My wish gave me hope for a longer life on earth,” wrote Marc in his essay, which was never published. “I was rejuvenated! I felt like I won the lottery.”
Give Kids the World Village is a registered nonprofit, and prepandemic, needed to raise $22 million a year in cash and $36 million in in-kind donations in order to fully fund its mission. Although wish organizations cover the round-trip travel costs for children and their families and pay the nonprofit an administration fee, Landwirth says it does not cover “anywhere near” the cost of the wish. (On average, Give Kids the World Village spends $52 million a year on family vacations.) In March of 2020, as COVID-19 spread around the world, Give Kids the World Village closed its doors. Despite getting a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, the nonprofit in June laid off 84 percent of its staff, going from 204 employees to 27 overnight. Six thousand wishes to visit the village were delayed.
On January 17, 2021, nearly 10 months from the day it had closed, Give Kids the World Village reopened with board approval and new safety measures recommended by three infectious pediatric disease doctors from Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando: No more buffet dining. All parties outdoors. Masks are required, social distancing is enforced, temperatures are taken. Hand sanitizer stations have been installed around the campus, and village staff disinfect high-touch surfaces after use. Instead of filling all of its 166 villas, Give Kids the World now only allows 25 families at a time, all of whom arrive and leave on the same day. “Hopefully, many children have the luxury of time, but there are many who don’t,” Landwirth says. “And we wanted to be sure that if we could reopen in a safe environment, that those folks have their wish as soon as possible. That we’re here for them.”
Since its inception, Give Kids the World Village has spent 92 cents of every dollar raised on its mission, and just over 7 cents on administration and fundraising; this year, 90 cents will go to the mission. In large part, Give Kids the World Village is able to focus so much on its core purpose because of its corporate partners: Walt Disney World is a founding sponsor, and “wish children” receive a Mickey Mouse stuffed animal and personalized visits from Disney characters. Any child who visits Give Kids the World Village also gets a Walt Disney World Wishes Pass, which grants them free access to the parks and separate, accessible entrances that allow them fast passes to rides.
Universal Orlando Resort, which has worked closely with Give Kids the World Village since 1990, also donates Give Kids the World alumni free park tickets, as does SeaWorld Orlando. (Give Kids the World Village “alumni” are also welcome to return to the park for four free days a year.) Perkins, Boston Market, and Friendly’s provide the food at the village, Hasbro the toys. (None of them have formal contracts with Give Kids the World Village—instead, Landwirth characterizes them as “contracts of the heart.”) This, all without the 1,800 shifts filled each week prepandemic by volunteers: volunteers who dress in costume, blend milkshakes, scan tickets, operate Lori’s Magical Flight and Kelly’s Sunny Swing, meet families at the airport, and run the putt-putt course with the express purpose of helping someone else live out their dream vacation, even if only for a week.
“For a time I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free,” wrote poet Wendell Berry.
Brad Loewen first learned about Give Kids the World Village in 2008, shortly after his three-year-old son Noah was approved to receive a wish through Children’s Wish Foundation of Manitoba. Noah’s condition is so rare it doesn’t have a name. Instead, it’s referred to as a genetic deletion—an absence of something that should be there, in those trillions of cells that account for a human body, and isn’t. When the abnormality was identified while Noah was still in utero, there were only three other known cases. They were all stillborn.
“Doctors could guess what was coming, but their guesses were wrong every time,” Loewen says.
In the first years of his life, Noah spent more than 600 days at Winnipeg Children’s Hospital. At one year old, he weighed seven pounds. Two years later, he weighed closer to twenty. He communicated using signs and facial expressions, groans, squeals, and smiles. After his third birthday, the Loewen family applied to visit Disney World and received word: They’d be traveling to Florida—to theme park central—and staying at Give Kids the World Village.
At first, Loewen says, he was annoyed at this news. Unhappy. He thought, Are you kidding me? Why would they want to travel all the way to Florida to be around other kids with illnesses when that’s exactly what they had been doing for those 600-plus days in the hospital? Wouldn’t it just be another place with sadness and challenge, disability and frustration? Dismayed but undeterred, the family moved forward with the trip. Noah was going to meet Winnie the Pooh’s Tigger, his favorite character, and that was what was most important.
In February of 2009, Noah traveled to Give Kids the World Village with the rest of the Loewen family: Brad and his wife Nichole, and their other two children, Kailyn and Josh, then eight and six. Noah had been discharged from the hospital only two days before. “As soon as we got there, to Give Kids the World, I knew,” says Loewen. “It was the anti-hospital. It’s this magical, wondrous place. It is joy, expressed in real-life circumstances.”
Noah loved it all: the pool, the popcorn, the pirate and princess party where he was given a sword. Meeting Tigger. But mostly, says Loewen, Noah loved watching his older siblings delight in their surroundings. For the first time in recent years, they were somewhere fun and exciting because of Noah, not in spite of him. And yes, though the family did go to Disney World and SeaWorld and the Kennedy Space Center, that was really all a side bonus to what was supposed to be a nice place to stay but ended up being the main event. For it was at Give Kids the World Village where the family felt the most comfortable. The most at peace. And that, Loewen says, was an amazing gift.
Two days after the family flew home from Orlando to Winnipeg, Noah returned to the hospital. Five months later, he died.
For the Loewens, Noah’s wish trip was merely the beginning of their relationship with Give Kids the World. They wanted to stay connected. And so in 2012, the family moved 3,000 miles from Canada to Florida to volunteer three days a week at the Village: Brad, a paramedic, leading the First-Aid and CPR training at the park; Kailyn delivering pizza on a golf cart; Josh putting together gift bags; Nichole greeting guests. Since 2016, they can be found most frequently next to the pool in a small, surf-themed shack that serves popcorn, hot dogs, Icees, and ice cream. It is called Noah’s Nook.
“It’s not about us,” Loewen says. “We are just there to pour into the visitors. To give them the best Thursday night possible. The best Saturday possible. Whatever it is, let’s give them the best we can in that moment.”
Imagine—a world where everyone is doing just that.
“You cannot dream as big as this extraordinary place is,” one parent told me.
“I’ll Tell You What It’s Like”
It is easy to idealize a vacation; easier still if that vacation is some sort of fulcrum: the first one of many, the one where things got better, the most recent one, the last one, the only one. The one where your kid actually got to feel like a kid.
The cruel truth is that many of the best people to tell the story of Give Kids the World Village are no longer alive to tell it. But for those children that do heal and continue to grow up, their recollections are resounding. The experience of this place is no myth, they want you to know. If only you could see it! The magic of Give Kids the World is real.
Emily Perez has severe Von Willebrand disease, a bleeding disorder in which blood does not clot properly. She was also born with Tetralogy of Fallot, a heart defect necessitating surgery through adulthood; already, she has had five heart surgeries, two of them open heart. She was eight and a half when she went to Give Kids the World Village in March of 2019.
The first thing we did was go to our villa, number 219. The kids’ room was so big and there was a huge bathroom, with a jacuzzi and little soaps that smelled like strawberries and ice cream. Then I put on my swimsuit and was like, “The pool! The pool! The pool!” I could have ice cream for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or a snack. My parents still made me eat fruit, but after that? Ice cream time! I almost forgot the best part. The Castle of Miracles. You get your star and they put it up on the wall. I’m under Celestial. There’s also a room that’s like a fairy house with fairy doors, and there’s a slide. I went down it like a million times until I finally saw that I could write a letter and leave it at the fairy door. It was so fun that me and my family would go to the parks during the day but as soon as the sun started to set I’d say, “Mommy, Daddy, come on. I don’t want to miss the village activities.” The last day before we left I said, “We are not going to the parks today. We are staying at this village.” There’s so much I can’t even say it all.
In some ways, Emily’s wish trip to Give Kids the World Village generated more wishes: dreams of things to do and places to see once she is big enough, strong enough, grown enough. She wants to be an artist and write stories, she says. But perhaps most telling is this: When she’s old enough, Emily hopes to return to Give Kids the World Village. This time, it will be as a volunteer.
Give Kids the World Village is currently reassessing its volunteer needs amid its phased reopening. To learn more about becoming a volunteer, visit the park website.