How this 'magical' village is transforming the holidays for critically ill children: 'So much light in a very dark time'

·4 min read

The holiday season of giving and joy takes on an even more profound meaning this time of year in Orlando, Florida, when the Give Kids the World Village stages its Night of a Million Lights, bringing millions of spectacular holiday lights to critically ill children and their families, as well as to the public.

Casen Parsons, age 3 in this photo, who has a rare genetic disorder (left) and his older brother Radek, age 8 (right) during their first visit to the Give Kids the World Village in 2018. [Photo: Kristin Parsons]
Casen Parsons, age 3 in this photo, who has a rare genetic disorder (left) and his older brother Radek, age 8 (right) during their first visit to the Give Kids the World Village in 2018. [Photo credit: Kristin Parsons]

The village is an 89-acre "storybook" resort. “[It] provides so much light in a very dark time for a lot of families,” Kristin Parsons, mom to six-year-old Casen, tells Yahoo Life. The Parsons family first visited the village when Casen was three. He was born with VACTERL association, a rare genetic disorder that impacts the spine, heart, renal system and more.

“He spent the first eight months of his life in the hospital with countless surgeries and procedures," says Parsons “He ended up with a tracheostomy, a feeding tube, and lots of different equipment we didn't know we would be enduring.”

This year, the family moved from Colorado to Orlando to be closer to the village and visit every week. “Christmas itself is just magic, but then you come here and see all these lights, knowing all the magic that Give Kids the World does, and you can’t help but feel warm and fuzzy.”

Give Kids the World is an independent nonprofit organization (despite being in Orlando, it’s not funded by Disney, though the company is a partner) that works in tandem with about 200 wish-granting programs to give critically ill children and their families a week to remember. Last year, the nonprofit created Night of a Million Lights as a pandemic-proof way to share the joy of the village at Christmastime with the public. Guests take a two-hour tram tour through the storybook village, enjoying millions of lights including a dancing lights show in a fairytale neighborhood, snow (in Florida!), and of course, a visit from Santa.

“You can’t understand the magic that is Give Kids the World until you’re actually in the village,” says Parsons. “I hate using the word ‘normal,’ but [in the village] you forget everything that is going on in your life,” Parsons says. “You forget that there was a doctor’s appointment where you got bad news two days prior to this trip. You forget that your kiddo was sick three weeks before that and in a hospital room.”

According to Give Kids the World President and CEO Pamela Landwirth, that enthusiasm for the village is part of what has made it a successful nonprofit that has hosted over 177,000 families.

Hope to me is the most precious gift you can give another human being and that's the gift that we give year round. That’s highlighted during the holiday season, when there’s so much joy around us.”Pamela Landwirth, President & CEO, Give Kids the World

As Landwirth points out, some rides in Disney and Universal theme parks aren’t wheelchair accessible. At the village, which has its own set of rides and costumed characters (it’s “run” by Mayor Clayton, a massive bunny) everything is set up for children who may need special accommodation. “It’s really exciting for them. We celebrate Halloween every Monday and Christmas every Thursday all year round,” says Landwirth. “It’s a party every night, hopefully to renew their spirits.”

Night of a Million Lights is open to the public through January 2, 2022. Tickets range from $15 to $40, and proceeds go to grant more wishes for more kids.

“The spirit of the holidays is all about hope,” says Landwirth. “Hope to me is the most precious gift you can give another human being and that's the gift that we give year round. That’s highlighted during the holiday season, when there’s so much joy around us.”

But despite the beautiful lights, the daily presents, and the ice cream for breakfast, the biggest gift the village gives its families is the gift of each other. As Parsons puts it, “At the village, you truly become a family. Not a medical family.”

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