The Magic Kingdom is the place where many kids want to go to realize their theme park fantasies, meet movie characters and generally just have the time of their lives.
For some kids, all that it takes is connecting with Dreams Take Flight, the national charity that helps children with physical, emotional, mental and social challenges go to Disneyland for one day. The experience offers the opportunity to families who would otherwise be unable to manage the financial burden of such a trip, providing the experience without the expense.
The Edmonton chapter provides this opportunity to children from as far south as Red Deer and as far north as Yellowknife.
For a group of 137 metro Edmonton area kids – including several from St. Albert – that day took place last Wednesday and the whirlwind adventure started pretty early.
Everyone was assembled and ready at the airport by 3 a.m. for the full day of fun and adventure.
"Then all of a sudden the flight crew comes out and they're all dressed in different outfits and start a conga line around the waiting area," said Sherri Koziol, program co-ordinator at Sidekicks Mentoring, the organization that matches community volunteers to children from six to 16, offering role models and mentorship throughout the community.
"Right from three or four in the morning, it's already a party atmosphere."
After the flight took off at 6 a.m. the kids were visited on the flight by Tigger and then they each got to visit the cockpit and make an in-flight announcement over the PA system.
"It was incredible!"
The fun didn't stop even once that day.
"It was jam-packed," related Jady Hagen, behavioural consultant with Transitions, the St. Albert agency that works to equalize the quality of life for people with disabilities or developmental delays to that of others.
She said that despite the children's challenges, they were mostly able to handle the fast pace with no problems. Everything was light and lively, with lots of interesting things happening, even in the least likely of places.
"Many of them had never been on a plane before, and we were expecting them within a 24-hour period to fly to LA and back," she continued, relating an anecdote about the bus ride right from the tarmac.
"We don't actually go into the terminal. We walked across the tarmac when we arrived at LAX. There was a live band playing Disney songs. We were serenaded across. We get into a bus; it's a 45-minute drive to Disneyland and then we're there for 10 hours, just go, go, go, go. It is a lot to expect of any child."
She and Koziol both went along as one of numerous chaperones on the trip. Organizers strive to reach a one-to-one ratio to provide maximum supervision. Although the parents themselves were not able to attend, Dreams Take Flight did arrange for numerous volunteers including Air Canada flight staff. Even the pilot joined the group from Transitions.
They were treated like little princesses and princes, getting to skip through long lineups and taking in the famous street parade.
"It was really easy to go on Splash Mountain a couple of times. The kids loved the roller-coasters – that was the most popular," Koziol said.
Jodi Townend's son, Riley, was one of the lucky children. She said that when he got the news that he was accepted for the trip, he was thrilled, although being on a plane for the first time made him hesitant.
"He said that he was very excited but nervous at the same time. He kept saying, 'I'm so excited!' He'd say, 'I'm going on an airplane to Disneyland' but then I showed him a plane going over us and I said, 'You're going in one of those'. 'Noooo! No, I'm not.' He ran away."
Before the group left the park at 7 p.m., each child was given a $50 gift card to use at the gift shop before leaving. Once they got back on the plane, stuffed Mickey Mouse toys were handed out to all.
"I think it was totally a dream vacation," Koziol ended. "When they're at school and the other kids are talking about Disneyland, now they can say, 'I've been there. I've been to Space Mountain. It was really cool.' They can feel a part of something that other kids just take for granted."