LOUGHMAN – Coming to Central Florida to visit the theme parks is the dream of a lot of children, including some who are terminally ill and don’t believe they’re going to live long enough to ever get to Disney or Universal Studios.
That’s where the Dream Village comes in.
A 22-acre resort in the Loughman neighborhood of Northeast Polk County, it’s a village created to look like it’s in a fairy tale setting, with special amenities and activities geared toward children who are chronically ill, physically challenged or have been abused.
The cottages inside Dream Village are accessible for wheelchairs and other special needs, and each cottage has a unique and magical theme designed especially for children.
The kids who stay here are also taken by the Dream Village staff to the theme parks – a dream come true by this charitable organization operated by the Sunshine Foundation.
But like most charitable entities, a recession, housing market crash and credit crunch has had a negative impact on their cash flow, in the same way it has for so many individuals and businesses across the region. It hasn’t been easy in the past few years to get the donations they need to keep operating.
The situation is getting better, though, said Rich Mergo, the Dream Village’s director of development. And he credits some very big players in Central Florida — the theme parks — for helping out.
“We’ve made some tremendous progress over the last couple of years,” Mergo said.
First, the Universal Orlando Foundation just adopted one of the nine themed cottages at the Dream Village, which means the charitable agency will get additional funding that allows the Sunshine Foundation to send more children from its waiting list to Loughman for their dream vacation.
The foundation provided a $30,000 grant that also gives Universal Orlando Resort an opportunity to brand one of the special cottages, while employees at Universal Orlando are going to be encouraged to do some volunteer work at the Dream Village.
It’s a welcome commitment, said Wanda Curtis, the Dream Village’s family and property manager.
“We are thankful for the generous support from Universal Orlando,” she said. “Their commitment to making dreams come true for our seriously ill children is truly appreciated.”
Also planning to help Dream Village is a theme park that hasn’t even opened its doors yet – although when it does this fall, it’s one that seems guaranteed to appeal to children.
Merlin Entertainments is now building Legoland Florida, a new theme park in Winter Haven on the site that used to house Cypress Gardens. Legoland Florida will be modeled after the popular Legoland parks in Europe and California, and the new Winter Haven park is scheduled to open in October.
Mergo said Legoland wants to be a good neighbor in Polk County, and has recognized the fine work that Dream Village does for disadvantaged youths.
“Legoland has committed to redecorating one of our cottages, so that will be a big event,” Mergo said.
This kind of assistance, he added, will allow Dream Village to not only survive this economic downturn, but possibly expand and become even better.
“We’re trying to make the Dream Village the shining star of Four Corners,” he said, “the place that everybody wants in their neighborhood.”
Four Corners is the area where four counties — Lake, Orange, Osceola and Polk — come together at the intersection of U.S. 27 and U.S. 192.
Dream Village services children ages three to 18, whose families do not have the financial resources to take them on a Central Florida vacation.
As the organization’s web site notes, “We answer the dreams of children that do not qualify for other wish granting organizations that require a life-threatening diagnosis. Most of the children we serve wish to visit the Central Florida theme parks and attractions when asked the simple question: ‘If you could have one dream, what would it be?’
“Since this has been the No. 1 dream request every year,” the site notes, “the Dream Village was built 1988-1989 and officially opened in January 1990.”
To learn more about the Sunshine Foundation’s Dream Village, visit the website, www.sunshinefoundation.org, or call 863-424-4188 or 800-457-1976.
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