Give Kids The World Continues to Inspire Hope During COVID-19 Pandemic
Pamela Landwirth is an expert in creating hope. To date, she’s handwritten more than 150 notes to children who need a little sunshine. As the president and CEO of Give Kids The World (GKTW), the 84-acre, nonprofit resort in central Florida that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with critical illnesses and their families, Landwirth has made it her life’s work to bring joy to those facing life’s greatest challenges and that hasn’t changed during the global pandemic.
A vision of Holocaust survivor Henri Landwirth, the Give Kids The World Village provides accommodations in 166 fully furnished villas, while Florida-based IAAPA members provide tickets to their theme parks for 8,300 families in a normal year. “Our whole mission is to create a week of ‘yes,’” Landwirth says of the children who visit GKTW. “They are so used to hearing ‘no,’ and their lives are upended once they get this diagnosis.”
Out of an abundance of caution, GKTW shuttered in March in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. “So imagine: You’re so excited; you’re going to get to go to GKTW; you’re going to be on this wonderful vacation, and now we’re postponing it,” Landwirth says. Explaining to future wish children why their trip is on hold is the toughest part for Landwirth. “They don’t understand. When they’re sick—which they always are—the world doesn’t stop. So why is the world stopping because of a virus?” she says. “That is so hard to explain to a child.”
To date while the village gates remain closed, more than 1,000 wish trips have needed to be postponed. During this time, Landwirth and her team have continued working while security officers patrol the property. After the first week following the closure, Landwirth sent more than 400 love packages to children awaiting their wish trips in the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, and the Netherlands. Inside each box are comfort items, small toys, and her note of affection.
One of the greatest ways Landwirth says IAAPA members can support GKTW during the coronavirus pandemic is by planning to participate in the World Passport for Kids Program. Started a quarter-century ago, the program encourages attraction owners and operators outside of central Florida to provide a day out for children with critical illnesses. The ability to generate new memories by visiting a regional attraction can recreate feelings of positivity once a wish child returns home.
“A child only gets one wish. We’re looking for ways to extend it,” Landwirth says. “How do we make it last longer? How do we keep those memories going longer to create more hope?”
To date, more than 400 participating theme parks, zoos, aquariums, and family entertainment centers have participated in the World Passport for Kids Program, welcoming wish children and their families to enjoy a complimentary visit. Landwirth says individual parks and attractions can tailor the program in a way that makes the most sense for their operation.
Creativity at Work
Many IAAPA manufacturers and suppliers also support GKTW through in-kind contributions. “One of the thing a lot of our children cannot take advantage of is rides—our children are in wheelchairs,” Landwirth explains. To remedy this, Zamperla designed and donated a collection of rides that can accommodate wish children sitting in their wheelchairs. Vekoma built GKTW’s “Enchanted Carousel” featuring two ride units that pivot during boarding, allowing children in wheelchairs to be loaded safely.
“To see a parent’s face light up with joy for the first time when they are watching their child on a ride—you cannot put that into words,” Landwirth says. ITEC Entertainment and Sally Dark Rides worked on the Castle of Miracles project, while Family Entertainment Group provides games to the Amberville Train Station. At the Park of Dreams, Vortex donated a Splashpad Aquatic Structure where children in wheelchairs can play in the resort’s water park. “We’ve been so blessed to have this amazing partnership with IAAPA for over 26 years now,” she says.
When Give Kids The World reopens following the COVID-19 pandemic, wish children will find a new ice cream parlor waiting for them. Walt Disney Imagineering and Universal Creative came together to design the new Henri’s Starlite Scoops. “It’s the first time to our knowledge that Disney and Universal partnered on the creative behind this,” Landwirth says.
The new food and beverage location honors founder Henri Landwirth, paying homage to the hotelier’s history as an inn keeper along Florida’s Space Coast during the Mercury and Apollo spaceflight era. The new structure has a spaceship sitting on top of the roof, built by Kern Studios. Ironically, opening the venue designed to serve ice cream cones and banana splits will be sweet for Landwirth, as it represents a return to wish granting for the special children she serves. “We want to give them a week where they can be normal, because I think happiness is the best medicine,” Landwirth says.