A massive star cluster exists in Central Florida, luminously nestled inside a castle that has a small galaxy gleaming on its ceiling and walls. What sounds like a scene taken from a child’s storybook is, in reality, just a small part of the whimsical scenery at Give Kids The World Village, an 84-acre nonprofit resort that provides weeklong, cost-free vacations to children with critical illnesses and their families. Each star in the cluster bears a wish child’s name. Each star carries memories and represents a small piece of heaven visitors can return to for years to come.
Over the course of its 32-year history, the nonprofit has helped fulfill more than 165,000 wishes for children and their families.
“We’ve never turned a child away,” said Pamela Landwirth, president and CEO of Give Kids The World. “We’re the destination for children from all over the world who are battling a critical illness and share a common bond, which is a wish to come and experience everything that Central Florida has to offer.”
To qualify for a wish, children must be between ages 3 and 18, they must have been diagnosed with a critical illness, and they must have a doctor’s permission to travel.
Built upon compassion, imagination and partnerships, Give Kids The World provides an all-inclusive, stress-free family experience with meals, accommodations, attraction tickets and on-campus entertainment.
“All tickets are free for the families,” Landwirth said. “This year alone, we’ve had about 8,000 families with roughly five people per family. To be able to sit down and have meals together and to not worry about how they’re going to pay for the meal, or how they’re going to pay for the park tickets or lodging, is such a relief for the families. It’s just putting their minds at ease and giving them a week of ‘yes.’”
Happiness that Inspires Hope
With so many rewarding aspects of working at Give Kids The World, Landwirth struggled to pinpoint her favorite one.
“You walk down The Avenue and you see the smiles on the kids’ faces. You see the transformation of the entire family when they get here — they’re so tired from all the struggles back home, but by the end of the week, they’re recharged and rejuvenated, and the wish child is so full of hope and happiness.”
Landwirth tells the story of a young girl named Alyssa who had Stage 3 kidney cancer and a Wilms’ tumor. She was on hospice care. Then she spent a week at the Village.
“She went back and told her doctor, ‘If you want to make kids well, send them to Give Kids The World. It’s magic medicine.’ She’s now a junior in college and she will say that the reason she’s alive today is because Give Kids The World gave her hope.”
Even when the story doesn’t have a happy ending, the memories created at the Village provide peace and joy for the family members to enjoy today and reflect back on in the future. One family in particular stands out to Landwirth. The grandparents of a young girl, Bethany, return every year to volunteer at the Village and to visit Bethany’s star. “I’ll never forget the letter I got from them saying, ‘Our little Bethany went to heaven last night. I’ll bet it’s a lot like Give Kids The World.’”
Give Kids The World is routinely awarded top designations and recognition from agencies such as the Better Business Bureau, Florida State Certified Green-Lodging Resort, Charity Navigator and America’s Charities, among others. What makes the organization so unique is not just its vision or the Village, but the fact that 92 cents of every dollar spent goes directly into the mission. Slightly less than 7 cents is spent on fundraising and overhead.
“What that means is you’re not going to see us on television like some of the other bigger charities,” Landwirth said. “We choose not to do that because we want to be good stewards of our resources. So that’s why you don’t see our name plastered everywhere and you have Central Floridians who have never heard of us.”
Despite that fact, Give Kids The World manages to fill 1,800 volunteer shifts per week. It estimates the value of those volunteer hours is about $7.9 million in labor costs.
A Storybook Village
Give Kids The World creates joyful experiences and cherished memories. The Village celebrates Christmas every Thursday year-round and Halloween every Monday. An on-campus ice cream parlor opens at 7:30 a.m., serving banana splits for breakfast and sending the scent of waffle cones wafting along The Avenue.
Between pony rides, a life-size Candy Land playground board game, a pool and splash zone, pirates and princesses parties, a nail salon, miniature golf and a fishing pond stocked with catfish, many families choose to spend the majority of the week at the nonprofit resort. “To try to fit in four Disney parks, Universal, SeaWorld and Aquatica in six or seven days for a healthy family … just, wow,” Landwirth said. “Here, it’s stress-free and relaxing.”
But many children want to meet Mickey Mouse or their favorite Marvel superhero. Walt Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando send characters to the Village each week to meet the children. “There was a young boy whose wish was to meet Mickey,” Landwirth said. He had the opportunity to see Mickey from afar while at Magic Kingdom, but was unable to fulfill his wish. “The fact that Mickey came to meet him, and he didn’t have to wait in the heat or a long line to get that hug or autograph, meant the world to the family.”
Once Upon a Time
Amy, a young girl with leukemia, had a final wish to come to Central Florida to visit the theme parks. While arrangements were being made to grant her this wish, Amy passed away. The hotelier who had agreed to host Amy and her family was devastated, so he set out to streamline the process from wish to fulfillment.
Henri Landwirth created Give Kids The World in 1986 — hosting families at his hotels free of charge — and three years later opened the Village as a stand-alone, nonprofit resort. Pamela Landwirth, his former wife, has overseen operations for more than 20 years. Henri Landwirth passed away in April 2018, but not before seeing his vision come to fruition with the Village hosting children from 75 nations and all 50 states.
Thanks to the efforts of wish-granting organizations and partnerships around the world, Give Kids The World can host a child and family within 24 hours. The nonprofit partners with more than 200 chapters of wish-granting organizations around the world, including Make-A-Wish and the Starlight Foundation. About 50 percent of children who are given the opportunity to have a wish granted ask to come to Florida, Pamela Landwirth said.
The founding partners include Disney, SeaWorld and the Intercontinental Hotel Group, or Holiday Inn. The organization has since developed partnerships with Universal, Wyndham, Legoland, Hasbro and Perkins. With the help of every partner, the Give Kids The World Village has expanded to an 84-acre campus with a full-service café, a splash garden and two pools, wheelchair-accessible rides, and 168 family villas.
When all villas are occupied, Give Kids The World’s hotel partners provide accommodations off-site, but Landwirth hopes the Village can expand soon so every visiting child can experience staying on the campus.
“It’s so different staying here at the Village, which is why we always want to put families here on property,” she said. “The message that we keep hearing over and over from families is, ‘We felt normal there. Nobody stared at us.’”
The mission itself inspires hope, along with the strength in each partnership and the growth seen each year at Give Kids The World. The organization looks forward to expanding the Village and continuing to make dreams come true, she said. “We’ll just keep continuing to grow as long as there’s a need.”