One hundred and twenty-eight children enjoyed ice cream as they watched the sun come up aboard an Air Canada flight staffed by a pirate crew as they made their way to the “happiest place on earth.”
And if that sounds like the start of the best day ever, it only got better as the annual Dreams Take Flight Ottawa trip to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida touched down shortly after 9 a.m. Sept. 25. By 10:30, children who might never have had the chance to visit the theme park could barely contain their excitement – eager to experience everything Disney had to offer.
The day began bright and early at 4 a.m. as parents and children arrived at Ottawa’s Canada Reception Centre, where the prime minister and other dignitaries fly from, in anticipation of the 5:30 a.m. flight. Once inside the hangar, all were greeted by nearly 100 smiling Dreams Take Flight Ottawa volunteers who turned what could have been a chaotic scene into a sea of excitement and organization.
Each child and volunteer received a uniform to wear on the trip. Children received white t-shirts, red hats, black shorts and Crocs. Volunteers received a white hat, white shirt, black shorts/capris and Crocs.
“This is just incredible,” said first-time Dreams trip volunteer Nida Kealey. “We are going to have such fun.”
She recalled how her now 18-year-old autistic son went on a Disney trip with the organization nine years ago and it was the best thing he could have done. He has since travelled on a plane 10 times and she credits the Dreams trip with giving him the confidence to do whatever he set his mind to.
Since October 1995, Dreams Take Flight Ottawa has given children with physical, mental or social challenges an incredible day where they can be carefree and make memories to last forever. A total of nine hours was spent at Disney including meals and shopping time.
Dreams Take Flight Ottawa uses specific criteria to select children for the trip. Among the criteria, children with special needs must represent various agencies, be between the ages of six and 12 and have never visited a Disney theme park before.
Making special memories happen is not cheap. This year's trip cost $195,000 and would not have been possible without assistance from organizations like Air Canada, which donated the plane for the trip, and Shell, which donated the fuel.
The Air Canada pilots and flight crew for the trip also donated their time, taking a vacation day to be part of the magical experience that not only included dressing up for the flight down but also coming to the park later in the day to enjoy the rides.
Other corporate sponsors like Mark's, Crocs and Bentley stepped up again to assist with clothing, shoes and backpacks for volunteers and children. And even more sponsors support the trip and the charity in other ways.
Dreams Take Flight is a 100 per cent voluntary run organization and various fundraising events held over the course of the year help top off coffers so everything is paid for on the trip. Children also received spending money to bring home a special Disney souvenir.
For some parents, the trip marked the first time their children were either away from them or travelling to the United States without them. But, the fear of having a child gone for nearly 24 hours was not greater than their desire for them to have the experience of a lifetime.
Dunrobin’s Laura Taffinder, 8, was recommended for the trip by the teacher at her school in Kanata.
“She is very, very excited,” said her mom Tracy Taffinder, who said she was not nervous about her daughter travelling without her. “I am so excited for her. It really is the chance of a lifetime.”
Laura even managed to get a full night’s sleep before the flight, with mom having no trouble waking her up bright and early.
This year's trip to Disney featured a number of siblings sharing the magical experience. Among them were sisters Shaily and Feyah Turner of Orleans.
“We are very excited,” 12-year-old Shaily said on the plane, noting the sisters couldn't wait to ride the popular Splash Mountain ride. “We have been looking it up on the computer for quite a while.
The first rides chosen by groups the minute they walked through Disney’s gates were either Splash Mountain or Space Mountain, and they were revisited frequently throughout the day. While the water ride sends riders hurling down a 50-foot water drop and the other is a roller coaster ride in the dark, the screams heard were not of fear but excitement.
As the day went on, the smiles got wider. While most of the children on the trip were English, a number of French youngsters enjoyed themselves as well.
One of those was Denisha Poulain Levasseur. She had a great time driving a race car on the Speedway ride and she kept saying she could not believe she was doing it.
For some volunteers, this year's trip likely marked their last with the organization.
“It has been awesome. The kids are great. We’ve had a great group today,” said 2012 Dreams Take Flight Ottawa president Nicole Banville midway through the Disney trip day.
Banville is stepping down as a director with the organization and the most recent trip marked her final one.
“It is bittersweet. I will miss everybody. I will probably hang a bit, maybe volunteer,” she mused.
“I think the kids have had a great time from what I have seen,” Banville concluded.
Her husband Mike, the organization's vice-president, has been on 14 trips to Disney and he said the experience is very gratifying.
As the day wound its way to a close, and all the rides had been thoroughly ridden, children and volunteers made their way to Disney’s famous Main Street for some souvenir shopping. Each child received $30 to find that special memento of a day not to be forgotten anytime soon.
The group arrived back at the hangar at Orlando International Airport and boarded the steps to the waiting plane before the 9 p.m. takeoff.
While the trip down to Florida had been filled with the sounds of excited children, the return trip was much quieter and many huddled down in the first class sleeper bunks to dream about the incredible day that was their reality.
Once back inside the Canada Reception Centre, each child received a donated Bentley donated backpack filled with gifts to mark their special day. From there, they were ushered into the main part of the hangar where a red carpet was rolled out and parents waited eagerly for their children.
“This was the best day ever,” one child was overheard telling his parents.
No doubt, a sentiment shared between many other parents and children as they reunited after a long, exhausting but thrilling day.