Of the annual wishes granted by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and other wish-granting organizations for terminally ill kids, half of them are to visit Central Florida. Make-A-Wish turns to this nonprofit to fulfill those dreams, which it does for 196 families at a time and some 7,000 international families a year. No one is refused, and each family spends an all-expenses-paid week in their own villa, eating as much as they want and playing in a compound that looks like a second Magic Kingdom.
It's the most magical place you never knew existed. The 70-acre, gated operation is its own fantasy world with a 6-foot rabbit, Mayor Clayton, who provides nightly tuck-ins. Perkins Restaurants and Boston Market discreetly support the dining pavilion, which looks like a gingerbread house, and there's an Ice Cream Palace where no child is ever refused a scoop. Christmas falls every Thursday, when there’s a parade, holiday lighting, and an appearance by Santa, who gives everyone a toy provided by Hasbro. The carousel is the only one in the world that a wheelchair can drive right onto, plus there's horseback riding, a small-gauge train route, miniature golf, and on and on.
As you can imagine, it depends on volunteers—to the tune of 1,200 slots a week. You don’t have to commit to anything longer than a few hours and if you’re there for dinner, you’ll eat; just apply online about 2 weeks ahead and be at least 12 years old, although exceptions can be made for families who want to volunteer together. Mornings or evenings are best because the kids want spend their days at the theme parks, too. The workload is easy. That could mean turning person-size cards at the World’s Largest Candy Land game, held Sunday nights on a board measuring 14,400 square feet. You could help at Mayor Clayton’s surprise birthday party, thrown every Saturday, or at the “dive-in” movies screened weekly. You can spoon hash browns at breakfast (until about 11am), run the train, or serve dinner with a smile—the opportunities are virtually boundless and the staff matches talents with the right post.
Your mission is not to lavish pity or love, but to simply run the resort where families escape from hard times. You’ll be a host, not a nurse. Not every child is sick—their brothers and sisters come, too, and many of them are starved for attention after their siblings’ often long illnesses. You’ll find that the village is quite a joyous place as families are, perhaps briefly, liberated from the burden of their lives. A favorite part of Give Kids the World is the Castle of Miracles, where the rafters are covered with thousands of golden stars. Each star is affixed by a child on the last night of his or her stay. Years later, moms and dads sometimes return and ask to see, one last time, the star that their child left behind.