When Amy, a little girl with leukemia, was unable to fulfill her wish to visit Orlando’s theme parks before she passed away, hotelier Henri Landwirth vowed that he’d never let a child in need’s wish go unfilled again. So he enlisted his colleagues in the hospitality and theme-park industries to help him make his vow a reality. His idea, Give Kids The World, expanded to a 70-acre resort village with more than 140 villa accommodations for wish children and their families, plus entertainment attractions and fun activities specially designed for children with special needs. The organization works with wish-granting organizations, such as Make-A-Wish Foundation, to fulfill any wishes to visit Orlando-area theme parks. In 2011, more than 7,000 wish children and their families from all 50 states and 25 countries visited the resort for a cost-free vacation.
Though their flight school has racked up some impressive recognition—including the prestigious 2012 President's Award from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA)—John Amundsen and his Tailwheels, Etc. team eschew pomp and circumstance in favor of fun. According to Jill W. Tallman of Flight Training magazine, you won't "see flight instructors in epaulets. In the summertime, everybody wears shorts and T-shirts—instructors and students alike." The crew hosts weekly cookouts to promote a welcoming, social atmosphere and has created a community room where budding aviators can learn from private pilots and former military and airline pilots.
As Tallman reported, Amundsen meant to retire in Florida after his aviation career but now finds himself happily running the family business. His son Jonathan has been flying since the age of 2 and heads up the aircraft-maintenance department with the help of his wife—flight instructor and mechanic Liz Amundsen. The couple restored their 1940 Stearman Kaydet so people could experience the thrill of flying an open-cockpit biplane. Their infant son Riley is currently training for an aviation career by plotting flight paths for the airplane mobile above his crib.
Tailwheels, Etc. is one of the first flight schools in the country to be accredited by the Flight School Association of North America (FSANA). The school specializes in an accelerated, two-week private pilot-training program that gets students into the air quickly and safely.
Nestled on the shores of the eponymous southern Florida lake, Lake Okeechobee Resort is an ideal base camp for outdoor recreation. Popular pursuits here include bass fishing, boating, and hiking or bicycling along a segment of the 1,400-mile Florida Trail that wends around the lake’s perimeter. You can set off into the lake from the resort’s 100-slip marina. From its location on the southeastern side of the lake, the resort has a spot to watch sunsets over the water.
For those camping, Lake Okeechobee Resort has especially long lots for oversized RVs or sleeping bags designed for giraffes. An onsite restaurant, public bathrooms, and pool take the edge off of roughing it while staying at the campground or in the cabins.
Though skydiving is often billed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience, for the staff at Jump Florida Skydiving, it's a job. As they climb above the scenic landscape of Lake Country in a Cessna 205 aircraft, they stay calm as excitement radiates off customers—as young as 18 and as old as 79—about to make their first leap. At the ideal altitude, the plane levels off, and jumpers get into position. The sky is amazingly clear around the plane, which takes off from a private airport, so there are no commercial jets or flocks of migrating geese obstructing the airspace. Tandem or solo divers step to the edge, take a deep breath, and experience the thrill of accelerating at 9.81 meters per second per second.
While participants revel in their adrenaline-fueled thrills, the staff keeps them safe by adhering to the strict standards of the United States Parachute Association. These protocols enforce rigorous regulations, safety guidelines, and eminently cool member handshakes. On the ground, the team prioritizes hospitality, offering guest rooms, a restaurant, spectator fields, and a nerve-diffusing bar.