Bob Hack, a six-foot-something deputy sheriff with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, blinks his red eyes frequently as they begin to well up.
He stands near gate 10 of John Wayne International Airport. Around him, the chatter of 64 kids fills the air as they tell their new friends, volunteers and media about how they spent the past seven hours in the happiest place on Earth.
Bob stares straight ahead as he talks about his day with 14-year-old Kolby Zanier of Rossland B.C.
“Kolby is an amazing kid. She’s got a pacemaker; she has an artificial heart; she’s got vision and hearing problems. But she powered through the entire day, wanting to see and touch everything,” he says.
“We were the last ones back to the buses because she wanted to see and touch more. It was hard to keep up with her.”
One might assume that after volunteering with 11 previous Sunshine Foundation of Canada Dreamlifts, Bob would be used to this.
But, according to the burly deputy sheriff, his emotions get the better of him. Every time.
“I get to see Disneyland through their eyes.”
The adventure begins before sunrise on Tuesday morning.
Children, accompanied by their parents, arrive at Kelowna International Airport around 5 a.m. and are greeted by RCMP members, firefighters and mascots. Support volunteers locate the children who they are about to spend the day with.
Passports are dug out of suitcases, boarding passes are distributed and a lineup begins to form outside airport security.
Although parents are thrilled for their children, goodbye hugs are prolonged. Many of the Dreamlift kids have never been inside of an airplane before, let alone out of the country. Some have never spent more than a few hours away from family.
The airport security of YLW check the bags of the 64 Dreamlift youngsters, all of whom are challenged by severe physical disabilities or life-threatening illnesses.
The Sunshine Foundation of Canada was the first organization to introduce Dreamlifts to Canadian children. The first Dreamlift took place out of London, Ont. in 1987. It transported 161 children on two planes to Disneyland.
Throughout the past 24 years, the Sunshine Foundation has organized a total of 48 Dreamlifts from 17 different departure points across Canada.
As the Interior B.C. kids collect their bags and step towards the departure gate, they are participating in the Sunshine Foundation’s 49th Dreamlift and the fifth Dreamlift funded by Wendy’s Restaurants of the B.C. Southern Interior.
The smiles seem to be contagious. Other travellers in the airport terminal take a break from reading their newspapers and magazines to look over and see the excited faces boarding the Alaskan Airlines airplane.
As the aircraft’s wheels elevate off the tarmac, a collective roar of cheers erupts.
The media scrambles to grab their gear and find out what’s going through the kids’ minds now that their dream has, literally, taken flight.
Many of the interviews take similar shape.
“Have you ever been to Disneyland?”
“Are you getting excited?”
“What do you think will be the best part?”
When asked who her favourite Disney character is, 11-year-old Cassidy Dunnigan of Merritt hesitates while carefully considering her answer, “Good question. Peter Pan. And Minnie Mouse. And Mickey Mouse. And Tinkerbell.”
Aneela Afzal, a seven-year-old from Kamloops, is flapping her arms to make the plane go faster.
Seven-year-old Sara Slater of Penticton is rehearsing her speech to Mickey Mouse, “I’m going to say that Laurie, my uncle Dick, my mom and my dad say ‘hi’.”
Bonnie Pryce sits between Aneela and Cassidy. This is her fourth Dreamlift and, if history repeats itself, she’s convinced that the kids on the plane are about to have the time of their lives.
“It’s just such a wonderful experience. The kids have so much fun and the volunteers have so much fun. It means that the kids can do something independently. It gives the families a break and it gives the kids the joy of doing something entirely different,” says Bonnie.
Around 9 a.m., the pilot announces that the plane will begin its descent. The kids let out another cheer.
Small oval windows showcase the beauty of the golden state. The aircraft whizzes past palm trees and eventually touches down for a smooth landing.
The aircraft taxis down the runway towards a welcome reception of over a hundred volunteers, mostly from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
The media rush off the plane, get their passports cleared by customs officers on the tarmac and strategically position themselves to capture the children’s introduction to California.
The greeting is overwhelming.
The children disembark from the airplane, travel down a ramp to the tarmac, are saluted by members of the RCMP, get their passports cleared by the United States customs officials, meet the Orange County Sheriff’s Department volunteer who they have been matched up with for the day, get on their assigned bus and prepare for a 20 minute drive to Disneyland.
A quick conversation with Marilyn MacDougall, who has assisted in orchestrating the Dreamlift initiative for the past 24 years, confirms that things are running smoothly.
“We’re pretty organized at this end. I’m very pleased with the way the day is going,” says Marilyn.
“It’s really a heartfelt day. When I got on that plane, I saw that their faces were lit up like a Christmas tree. They know where they’re going.”
John Harkey, a special officer with the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, is helping out with the Dreamlift for his first time.
“All the kids seem to be really happy and they’re not even at Disneyland yet,” says John while laughing.
“Living down here, you take Disneyland for granted, then you see these kids are so excited to go. One kid had a list set out of all the rides he wanted to go on and in what order. It’s fun to see they’re that excited about it.”
The buses fill up with the kids, Canadian volunteers and newly acquainted American “buddies” from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department.
Disneyland is minutes away, and the kids know it.
Fourteen-year-old Lauren Taylor of Kelowna enters the Disneyland gates as a young woman on a mission to find her favourite ride. After a quick pit stop to get Pluto’s signature, she speed walks along Main Street, forcing her volunteer helpers to begin jogging to keep up.
One of those volunteers, Wendy Delcourt, has known Lauren for a long time.
“Lauren has been in my life since she was three. I do respite care with Lauren; we’ve kind of adopted her as part of our family,” says Wendy.
As Wendy tries to catch up to the speedy youngster, it’s clear that she is getting just as much joy as Lauren on this special day.
“Just seeing Lauren’s face and being able to see her come alive in the park, it’s so magical.”
Katanna Anthony, an eight-year-old from Penticton, gets to steer the boat on the Jungle Cruise. She screams and spins the wheel frantically counterclockwise as a hippopotamus emerges from the water on her right hand side.
Buzzing with excitement, Katanna says, “The man said, ‘You’re a great driver!'” as she steps off the boat.
Thirteen-year-old Kaytlan Kane is focused on meeting as many of the Disney celebrities as possible. With Winnie-the-Pooh’s signature already in the autograph book, she points towards Pixie Hollow, the home of Tinkerbell.
Seeing Kaytlan interact with Tinkerbell is an incredible moment. At first, Kaytlan’s volunteers scramble to take photos to capture the conversation, but then they stop and just watch. Before saying goodbye to Kaytlan, Tinkerbell and her fairy friend, Iridessa, give Kaytlan a hug.
Kaytlan’s face tells the story.
Fourteen-year-old Jacob Hubbard of Okanagan Falls had already conquered Splash Mountain and the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. He walks confidently while eyeing down his next adventure: The Matterhorn.
Through the twists and the turns on the bobsled, Jacob tries to remain as calm as possible but can’t help but let out a scream of excitement.
Thanks to special passes provided by the Disneyland staff, the Dreamlift kids are treated like VIPs all day with the privilege of being able to skip lineups for all of the rides.
As the afternoon winds down, seven-year-old Tristan Ross of Vernon stops to fuel up with some Macaroni and Cheese.
Tristan’s volunteer helpers say they tried take him on a few rides, but quickly realized that he belongs in Mickey’s Toontown.
“We’ve spent most of our day in Toontown. Mickey’s house and Minnie’s house were highlights. We did venture out to see some rides, but that wasn’t for us, so we came back,” says Eileen Kitchen.
Eileen says that this is the first Dreamlift she’s helped out with; however, hopefully not her last.
“It’s very emotional, it would make one cry if you stopped to think about it. It’s been just too much fun.”
According to Eileen she will forever be a customer of Wendy’s Restaurant on the Dreamlift Day in January.
The cost for putting together a Dreamlift trip is approximately $150,000. Funds for the B.C. Interior kids’ adventure comes primarily from money raised through the single day of fundraising.
The fundraiser takes the gross profits, wages and salaries from all the staff, management and ownership of nine Wendy’s restaurants in Kamloops, Salmon Arm, Vernon, Kelowna, West Kelowna and Penticton and then donates the money directly to the Sunshine Foundation.
“This is worth every burger that everyone’s ever bought on that day,” says Eileen.
The sun begins to fade and the visitors of the park locate their sweaters and jackets. Back on Main Street, the Dreamlift kids, along with thousands of others, seek to find the best vantage point to watch the 5:30 p.m. parade.
Mike Bucsko, an Orange County Sheriff’s Department volunteer who is matched up with 10-year-old Javendeep Dhaliwal, holds Javendeep’s bags as he stands in the middle of Main Street, looking towards the entrance.
The moment to stop and think about the day has stirred up his emotions.
“Today’s been great. Javendeep’s had a great time going on every ride that he wanted to. He’s just doing some shopping now,” says Mike.
He predicts that the goodbyes in a couple hours might be tough to get through.
“We’ve gotten close. I’ll stay with him until the plane takes off, hug him goodbye, wave and wish him all the best in his life.”
The magic of Disney comes alive at 5:30 p.m. with a spectacular parade. The Dreamlift youth use up what’s left of their disposable cameras to try and document the finale of their day.
A float featuring Santa Claus is the last one to travel along Main Street. Behind it flows a sea of people heading towards the exit. Those involved with Dreamlift catch the wave to the buses and by 6:45 p.m. are en route to Orange County’s airport.
Standing near the gate of departure, John Tietzen, franchise owner of Wendy’s restaurants in Kamloops, Salmon Arm, Vernon, Kelowna, West Kelowna and Penticton, says that it was a “really great day.”
“They were telling us we were going to have Santa Ana winds a couple days ago, it was going to be cold. But it was a beautiful day; everything seemed to go great,” he says.
According to John, the formula of the Wendy’s Dreamlift Day fundraiser has been successful because the public gets a close-up view of the good that’s being done.
“You stand in line at Wendy’s, you order food, you get something, you know the gross profits and wages go to (Dreamlift), then you see the results of your effort through media. It kind of completes the circle.”
As Bob Hack wraps up the cycle of his 12th Dreamlift, he mentions that he hopes to be a part of future trips.
“I’ll keep going as long as they’ll keep taking me,” says Bob.
When asked what this day does to him, he says, “It makes me go home, hug my kids and (appreciate) how lucky I am that my kids are healthy.”
As the children board the aircraft to head back to Canada, they turn back and wave to their new American friends. The Orange County Sheriff’s Department volunteers disguise misty eyes with heartfelt smiles. They wave goodbye to kids that they’ve known less than 12 hours . . . kids who may never leave their memory.
A few fall asleep on the ride home; a few chat with their peers about what they saw; a few sit quietly to themselves, reminiscing on a collection of surreal events.
Chris McInnis, national media and communications coordinator with the Sunshine Foundation, says that today has been one of the smoothest-running Dreamlifts that he’s been a part of.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes but the coordinators really know what they’re doing and they get things done and solve problems so that nobody needs to worry.”
Around midnight, a collection of eager parents wait at the arrivals section of the Kelowna International Airport. They stand on their tiptoes, anticipating the moment when their little one will pass through the sliding glass door.
Tammy Svendsen is quick to move when she sees familiar faces.
She makes her way through the crowd to embrace her sons, Cody and Jeremy.
“It was hard with both of them going, but you can’t let your own fear hold them back from fun times,” she says.
Cody, Jeremy and 62 other kids tell stories, show photos and give presents to their loved ones.
And then, after emails have been shared among new friends and volunteers have been thanked, the families make their way to the parking lot.
Perhaps now, for the first time in a while, the kids will get some sleep.