Every year since 2018, the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Snowball Express takes the children of fallen heroes to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida for the magical trip of a lifetime. The official Snowball Express webpage outlines the project’s purpose:
Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express serves the children of fallen military heroes. In 2017, Snowball Express became an official Gary Sinise Foundation initiative. We are committed to maintaining the wonderful traditions while finding new and exciting ways to serve our families of the fallen.
Related: Star-Studded Virtual Snowball Express Supports Military Families
Inside the Magic has had the opportunity to speak exclusively with Gary Sinise Foundation Chief Operating Officer Elizabeth Fields, who shared details with us about this year’s Snowball Express and how it changed due to the ongoing pandemic, which forced the event to go online for the first time.
Ms. Fields began by detailing the relationship the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express has with Walt Disney World Resort:
Since 2018, the Gary Sinise Foundation has hosted our Snowball Express year-end event for the children of fallen military heroes and their surviving parents and guardians at the Walt Disney World® Resort in Orlando, Florida. During this five-day trip to Disney, families of fallen military heroes meet each other, connect, and through this network of support, they come to know they are not alone. In addition to the year-end event at Disney, Snowball Express offers year-round activities that provide support, healing, and a community for these families.
This year, to protect the safety of the participating Gold Star families during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Gary Sinise Foundation pivoted the annual event to a virtual celebration, offering a series of surprise celebrity guests, engaging activities for the kids, and various resource groups designed to aid the families in the grieving process. This year, over 100 Disney volunteers and Disney character actors participated in one of Snowball Express’s flagship ceremonies: the virtual Walk of Gratitude, led by Gary Sinise from Los Angeles and Mickey Mouse from the Walt Disney World® Resort.
The 2019 Walk of Gratitude can be viewed in full below, to give you an idea of how special this tribute is to the families of fallen American military heroes:
Related: PHOTOS: Gary Sinise Treats Children of Fallen Sodiers to Disney Trip of a Lifetime
Ms. Fields went on to tell ITM about how the Gary Sinise Foundation and Disney kept proverbial “Disney magic” alive during this year’s online event. We are so impressed by the thought that went into ensuring that the children of fallen soldiers and their caregivers still had an incredible experience amid the many trials 2020 has brought for families around the nation:
The “Disney Magic” was very much alive during the Snowball Express Virtual Celebration’s Walk of Gratitude, where we had so many volunteers from Disney helping and participating. During the Walk of Gratitude, families wrote personal messages to their fallen hero on a scroll, and the children then rang bells to send the messages, with the help of a little Disney® magic, to the moms and dads they lost: it was one of the most poignant moments of the weekend. For the ceremony, the Gary Sinise Foundation shipped bells across the country to each Snowball Express family: each time the families rang the magical “bells” they received for the ceremony, it honored a fallen hero that was lost. One of the Snowball Express moms told us that she was hearing the ringing of bells in her house all weekend: which brough a smile to her face and tears to her eyes.
“Disney Magic” was also present in the virtual event sessions for Snowball Express: in one session, we even had a Walt Disney illustrator teach the children to draw Remy from Ratatouille – which was a lot of fun for the kids and families. After the virtual celebration was over, one of the kids said, “This year’s event felt like a Disney Cruise! But virtual and from our living rooms.”
Related: Celebrate Disney’s Commitment to Veterans With New Exhibition
As big fans of Disney Cruise Line ourselves, we can definitely get onboard with Ms. Fields’s assessment of this year’s event feeling like being on the Disney Dream, Magic, Fantasy, or Wonder!
When we asked Ms. Fields about her favorite part of this year’s Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express event, she told us about one of the most poignant moments of the weekend, regardless of if it is held virtually or in-person in Orlando, Florida:
My favorite part of this year’s event was the Snowball Express Virtual Remembrance Garden. Each year, the Gary Sinise Foundation’s Snowball Express honors and remembers our fallen military heroes in a Remembrance Garden filled with hundreds of flags and placards, each representing the brave heroes our Gold Star families lost.
Because we wanted to capture the power of the Remembrance Garden virtually for our participating Snowball Express families this year, our team at the Gary Sinise Foundation was truly ingenious and createda 3D interactive virtual walk-through of the Remembrance Garden with a flag representing a fallen hero from each of the 2,054 families in the program, providing an opportunity for the families to search and directly find the flag, placard, and photos honoring their loved ones. Because it was virtual, this year’s Remembrance Garden had flags to honor every single one of our families through a website that they can visit whenever they want to take a moment to reflect and honor the parent, or loved one, they lost.
Finally, Ms. Fields left us with hope for the future of the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express, which is committed to continuing to support and provide community for Gold Star families no matter what is happening in the world. We cannot commend the Foundation enough for all that they do for these deserving military families throughout the year!
Ms. Fields said:
Whether it be virtual or in-person, Disney will have a special place in our future Snowball Express events, and “Disney Magic” will continue to bring joy to these incredibly deserving families. Our hope is to return to Walt Disney World® Resort in Orlando, Florida in coming years, but it all depends on where we all are as nation: the safety of our Snowball Express families and the kids obviously comes first. Since this event is so special to our Gold Star families, we will continue to bring them together during the holiday season – a particularly challenging time for those who have experienced the loss of a loved one – for years to come.
We could not be more grateful for the magic that Disney can offer. Though we were not able to bring these families to Walt Disney World this year, we did bring a sense of Disney into their homes. Check out our website to learn more about Snowball Express and how you can make a direct impact on these families year-round.
Below, check out all of the celebrity shout-outs from Virtual Snowball Express 2020! Trace Adkins, Mykelti Williamson, John Ondrasik, Keanu Reeves (Toy Story 4), Chris Pratt (Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy), Angelina Jolie (Maleficent and Maleficent: Mistress of Evil), Neil Brown Jr., Daniel Henney (Big Hero 6), and more are featured!
What’s your favorite part of the Gary Sinise Foundation Snowball Express event?