Disney Races to Grant Critically Ill Kids’ Wishes Before It’s Too Late

cinderella castle at disney world with clock behind it
Credit: Disney/Canva

Disney is racing against the clock as a massive backlog of ungranted wishes in the offices of the Make-A-Wish Foundation threatens to keep some critically ill children from ever having their wishes come true.

john ratzenburger and young boy in wheelchair eat ice cream

Spencer got to meet his hero John Ratzenburger at Disneyland Resort/Credit: Disney

Disney and the Make-A-Wish Foundation joined forces in 1980, and since that time, the dynamic duo has granted wishes and made dreams come true for tens of thousands of children facing chronic, serious, and/or life-limiting illnesses and diseases. Earlier this spring, on World Wish Day, Disney and Make-A-Wish celebrated a monumental milestone–the granting of 150,000 wishes. Disney believes strongly in the “transformative power” of wishes and knew that the 150,000th granted wish would have to be something so spectacular, so over-the-top, that the young girl making the wish would never forget it.

To that end, Disney pulled out all the stops and surprised a young girl named Mikayla with a Disney vacation, complete with accommodations in the suite on the fourth floor of Cinderella Castle at the end of Main Street, U.S.A., at Magic Kingdom. She even rode as the Grand Marshal in the Festival of Fantasy Parade at the theme park in her very own coach. It was an experience that brought smiles and joy to Mikayla and everyone who witnessed her wish being granted by Disney.

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Wish Family is Grand Marshal for Festival of Fantasy Parade

Credit: Disney Parks

But news this week of a backlog of ungranted wishes threatens to sully that joy for thousands of children.

Since Disney and Make-A-Wish formed a partnership more than 40 years ago, a majority of wishes made by “Wish Kids” in the United States involve a visit to the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida. A four-month-long closure of the Central Florida Disney Parks in early 2020 in response to the global coronavirus pandemic put an unplanned moratorium on wish-granting. Now, despite the fact that the parks resumed operations nearly 36 months ago, a long list of not-yet-granted wishes remains, and Disney’s working feverishly to bring the dreams of chronically ill–and sometimes terminally ill–children to fruition.

The backlog of wishes is reportedly massive and has created a Disney wishes “wait list” of sorts.

“When the pandemic hit, it changed everything,” said Kristen Terry, a North Carolina mom whose son has been waiting for years to see his wish granted. When travel was restricted in early 2020, Cayden, an 11-year-old Wish Kid who has a congenital heart defect and has undergone ten surgical procedures so far, had already been waiting for his Disney vacation for several months. According to his mother, Disney and Make-A-Wish repeatedly sent emails asking them if Cayden would like to make a different wish.

“We had thought about it,” she said, but Cayden has no interest in changing his wish.

Cayden Terry, wears an orange shirt and smiles in for the camera.

Cayden Terry has been waiting for his dream trip to Disney World/Credit: Make-A-Wish

“I was just like, ‘I wanted to go to Disney World,’” Cayden explained. “That has been one of my dreams for a long time.”

Chris Winter, President and CEO of Make-A-Wish Eastern North Carolina, says that in his region alone, there are currently more than 400 kids waiting for their wishes to be granted. And a favorite dream of a Wish Child is to visit Disney World.

“More than half of our wishes are Disney wishes, and specifically also travel wishes,” Winter said. “That, as you can imagine, was one kind of wish that was most impacted by the pandemic.”

In June 2020, roughly one month before Disney’s Florida theme parks reopened, the Make-A-Wish Foundation indefinitely postponed all wishes involving travel or large gatherings. Jamie Sandys, a spokesperson for Make-A-Wish, explained that at that time, the foundation had not made any decisions about when the postponed Disney trip-type wishes would resume, citing public health concerns. To soften the blow of the restrictions, Make-A-Wish worked with Disney and other partners “to bring some magic at home for children waiting for wishes.”

While some kids made new wishes that included getting a new puppy or enjoying a shopping spree, many have been holding out for their trips to Disney World. Once travel resumed in the months following the onset of the pandemic, Make-A-Wish went to work to chip away at the backlog of ungranted Disney trip wishes.

young boy in wheelchair with mickey mouse

Demetrics wished to visit Disney World and got to meet Mickey Mouse/Credit: Make-A-Wish

“[Disney is] really providing a record number of wishes for us,” said Frances Hall, the chief mission advancement officer for Make-A-Wish America. “If we have a wish that needs to go this summer, such as a ‘rush wish,’ we’re able to get that wish in.”

Granted wishes are no small feats for Disney, as the company goes all out in turning kids’ dreams into realities, and they’re of no small consequence for the children and families who experience them. According to Wish.org, 94% of Wish parents say they saw their child’s emotional well-being improve because of the Wish experience, and 95% say that the experiences improved their family’s well-being. Nearly 100% of Wish parents said that granted wishes brought their families closer together, and 97% of wish parents said their child’s wish made their child feel more joyful.

boy and girl make a wish come true

Seth and Eva had their Disney wishes granted/Credit: Disney/Make-A-Wish

Thanks to Disney’s dedication to Wish families and the company’s determination to see wishes granted, Cayden and his family finally got to go on his dream trip to Disney World earlier this year. Cayden’s mom says he talks about the trip all the time.

“[Cayden] kept saying that all of his surgeries have finally paid off,” she said.

“It was really nice,” Cayden said. “We went to the pool, we watched a movie, we went to do some rides there, and I went horseback riding. It was worth the wait.”

About Becky Burkett

Becky's from the Lone Star State and has been writing since she was 10 and encountered her first Disney Park when she was 11. It was love at first Main Street Electrical Parade. Joy is blank lined journals, 0.7 mm pens, and all things Walt, Woody and Buzz, PIXAR, Imagineering, Sleeping Beauty (make it blue!), Disney Parks history and EPCOT. At Disney World, you'll find her croonin' with the birdies at the Enchanted Tiki Room or hangin' with Woody and the gang at Toy Story Land. If you can dream, you really can do it!