On a Saturday morning in December, well before the sun was up, 3-year-old Bobby Mercado was up and ready to go. His destination: the North Pole.
First came the long drive to Washington Dulles International Airport, a ride which, despite light traffic, seemed to take forever.
As Bobby and his parents, Jean and Robert Mercado, approached the airport, a series of three large flashing signs directed them —as well as other children who were arriving — to special parking for the North Pole flight. A crew of volunteers helped to get the excited kids to the terminal.
Once at the airport, all the travelers picked up boarding passes that were stamped "Washington to North Pole." The flight, No. 1746, was listed on the flight board for 9 a.m. at terminal J.
The kids did not have time for boredom while waiting for the flight; Ronald McDonald kept everyone laughing. A Santa letter-writing station complete with paper, markers and a mailbox direct to Santa — as well as an offering of juice and doughnuts — kept them busy .
Finally, it was time to board the giant Boeing 777 that was decorated with red, green and silver garland. While waiting for takeoff, stewardesses with Santa hats or reindeer antlers came by every few minutes with a treats, such as stickers, coloring pages, bubbles or candy canes. Then the pilot announced that it was time for takeoff.
After a mere 20 minutes in the "air," the fantasy flight made a smooth landing at the North Pole.
The trip was one of the Fantasy Flights at Dulles held each December by United Airlines across the country. The children who participated had been chosen by Children's Hospice International from several Washington D.C. and Baltimore-area programs that serve children who have a serious illness or disability.
As the children — and their parents and siblings — entered the North Pole — a large room at the airport — they were welcomed by carolers, dancers, firemen and costumed characters including Sponge Bob, Elmo, Frosty and Rudolph. Then, the kids were free to explore activities and entertainment. There were crafts and games, music, cookies to decorate, face painting, balloon artists and a moon bounce. Members of the U.S. military demonstrated robots and allowed the kids to try night vision equipment. Stuffed animals, T- shirts, hats, Frisbees and flashing fire truck pins were among the giveaways offered. Food also was provided, much of it by Chick-fil-A and Dunkin Donuts.
With so much to do, the kids didn't mind waiting for their turn to see Santa. And when they did, Santa gave them a huge gift bag full of toys, and parents received a framed picture capturing the moment.
When the event was over, the kids didn't seem to notice that they had bypassed a return plane flight and instead walked through the terminal back to a waiting shuttle bus.
Jean Mercado expressed the thoughts of many parents. "I could never have imagined how wonderful this would be, she said. "For just a brief few moments while that plane was in the 'air,' those children were able to leave [their disabilities] miles away."
Special thanks go to the many wonderful volunteers who make this event happen each year.