On November 10, 2003 — twenty years ago today — Fran, Rhiannon and I hopped on a plane to Orlando. We actually missed our flight that morning (!) but since Atlanta is a Delta Hub, a plane leaves for the House of the Mouse every hour. So it wasn’t much worse than having to wait for the next train.
We got to Orlando and were greeted by representatives of the Make-a-Wish Foundation. Rhiannon, who lived her entire life with polycystic kidney disease, was a Wish Kid — and like so many such kids, her wish had a very specific, but Disney-related, focus: she wished to have breakfast with Mickey Mouse.
Fortunately, the Make-a-Wish folks and their partner non-profit, Give Kids the World Village, decided that a breakfast date with Mickey Mouse only made sense in the context of an entire week in Orlando — not only for the Wish Kid but also for her lucky mom and dad. And that’s how it came about that on that Monday in November we flew down for a week of magic, wonder, and even hope.
In case you’re not familiar with the Make-a-Wish Foundation, they raise money to help a child with a life-threatening illness experience a dream come true. A lot of kids wish to be Batman for a day or to meet Taylor Swift or something special like that, and the media will sometimes profile such kids and the wonderful adults who work to make their wish come true. But believe it not, the most wished-for wish is simply to go to Disneyland or Walt Disney World.
When Rhiannon’s doctor mentioned to Fran that Rhiannon would qualify for a wish kid, and we talked about it as a family, Rhiannon needed no prompting — she wanted to meet Mickey Mouse. When representatives from Make-a-Wish came to our home to meet us, they gently separated Rhiannon from me and Fran and spoke with her privately (no doubt to make sure that the wish really was what she wanted!), and I think one of them said, “You know, we could arrange for you to have breakfast with Mickey.” That’s all it took. Rhiannon’s imagination lit up, and as much as I (jokingly) tried to convince her that her heart was really set on a week in Scotland, her mind was made up (and the Wish reps teasingly pointed out to me that international travel was not on the menu!).
As we began to make plans with our new friends, Fran and I were blown away by how kind and generous the Make-a-Wish Foundation was. Every detail was taken care of — from our transportation, to lodging (that’s where Give Kids the World came in), to all meals, park admission fees, even spending money. “Our commitment is to give your child her wish, with no stress or out of pocket expenses for you.” Fran and I were moved to tears by this unexpected offer of generosity.
So, back to November 10. Our first day was mostly travel and getting settled in at Give Kids the World, a lovely resort in its own right (we soon learned that some of the Wish Kids who visited there were so sick that getting to the theme parks might not be an option. But Disney worked closely with GKTW and plenty of activities took place on site, with characters like Mickey, Minnie, Pluto and Goofy stopping by to visit the kids).
Fortunately, Rhiannon, while certainly a very sick girl, was comparatively speaking healthy enough to truly be present and enjoy the trip (we were so blessed to have her live more than a decade after this trip, although of course we did not know that at the time). For the rest of the week we visited the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Universal Studios, Disney MGM Studies… and yes, on Thursday morning we made it to the heart of Rhiannon’s dream, and shared a breakfast table with the Mouse himself!
Other highlights of the trip included Rhiannon dancing with Minnie Mouse during one of the parades in the Magic Kingdom, Fran and I getting a “parent’s night out” dinner date while Rhiannon participated in programming at GKTW, and enjoying delicious banana splits served up at the free ice cream shop there (although I bet I gained three pounds that week!). All too soon it was over, and that Friday afternoon we were back on a plane, heading home to Atlanta. Rhiannon, clutching her Mickey Mouse plush, promptly fell asleep in the sky.
Twenty years later, and almost a decade after Rhiannon’s passing, just writing this blog post brings back a torrent of memories — and gratitude. Friends, be generous with nonprofits like Make-a-Wish and Give Kids the World. They really do work miracles.
Here are a few pictures. Yes, that really is me with the beard!
Fran and Rhiannon in front of Cinderella’s Castle.
L-R: Grumpy (I mean, me), Dopey, Rhiannon, Snow White, and Fran
Rhiannon and Snow White. Notice the lipstick: Snow White had just given Rhiannon a kiss.
This picture of Rhiannon with Goofy was taken at the Give Kids the World Village.
Daisy and Donald Duck sign Rhiannon’s autograph book.
Mary Poppins has always been one of Rhiannon’s (and all of our) favorite movies. The “Jolly Holiday” sequence with the penguins is good fun, but my favorite scene involves Bert and Uncle Albert.
In Walt Disney World, even the villains are fun.
With Jasmine from “Aladdin.”
At Disney/MGM Studies. My favorite incarnations of Mickey Mouse are Steamboat Willie (notice my shirt) and the Sorceror’s Apprentice. So needless to say, I love this picture.
Breakfast with Mickey Mouse. Wish granted!
Flying home. Napping with Mickey and, no doubt, dreaming of the wonderful week that had just ended.
Learn more about Rhiannon in the first chapter of my book Unteachable Lessons. You can also learn about her miraculous, love-infused life by reading a blog post I wrote shortly after her passing on her vigil and funeral.