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By Cappy Surette, Manager, Communications at Disney Experiences and co-chair of the Veteran Employee Resource Group known as “Disney SALUTE” for the Disney Parks Blog.
This week, we’re honored to welcome more than 700 families of fallen military heroes to Walt Disney World for the annual Gary Sinise Foundation “Snowball Express” event where more than 1,800 children and surviving spouses had the opportunity to bond with the only people who can truly understand their loss: one another. As a company with a long history of supporting the U.S. military community, we’re honored to host and make extra magic for these families from 80+ cities nationwide and overseas who have sacrificed so much in service to our country.
A key moment of this five-day retreat is the sunrise “Walk of Gratitude” in Magic Kingdom Park and it’s one our cast members look forward to supporting every year. So much so that more than 1,100 Disney VoluntEARS made their way to Magic Kingdom before 5 a.m. to honor these special military families.
As the sun slowly rose on a chilly December morning, hundreds of family members walked from Town Square towards Cinderella Castle to participate in an emotional ceremony celebrating their fallen loved one as hundreds more cast members cheered them on with loving appreciation and support.
Prior to arriving in Magic Kingdom, each family wrote personal messages to their fallen hero on scrolls that were placed in a magic caldron on the Cinderella Castle stage. During the procession, children of these fallen service members rang bells to send their messages up to the parent(s) they lost.
As they arrived at the Castle, they were greeted by Mickey Mouse and Gary Sinise Foundation leadership who started a special moment where all the scrolls in the magic caldron were sent skyward to heaven with the help of a little Disney magic.
“While our hearts are heavy at the circumstances that brought these families together, I am grateful we can wrap our arms around them, that we can honor them while remembering their loved ones who made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of freedom,” said actor and humanitarian Gary Sinise. “As we approach the holiday season, I am so glad that we are able to bring these deserving families together to create new and wonderful memories at the most magical place on earth, Walt Disney World.”
While all Disney cast members attending the morning Walk of Gratitude understood the solemnity of the event, this year’s ceremony held special meaning for Dan Barton, senior manager of Disney financial systems and a U.S. Marine Corps veteran.
“Support for military families is important for us here at Disney,” said Dan. “It is an honor to volunteer and recognize our fallen brothers and sisters who’ve paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is very special to be able to help bring a little magic to a child who has gone through incredible pain and loss of a loved one. As a Marine veteran, losing a loved one to military-related service hits close to home for many of us who’ve served in our nation’s military.”
We are honored to support the Gary Sinise Foundation’s annual Snowball Express event, which has expanded to include a second week from Dec. 9-13 to recognize and honor more than 350 families of fallen first responders who do so much to serve and protect our communities. We offer our thanks to Gary Sinise, his team and all the volunteers from both of our organizations that are helping bring solace and some happiness to all these special families when they need it most…during the holiday season.