United Airlines Fantasy Flight takes kids and families to Santa’s home (photos, video)

December 24, 2017 GMT

United Airlines Fantasy Flight takes kids and families to Santa’s home (photos, video)

CLEVELAND, Ohio – On her flight to the North Pole, 3-year-old Zoe Kirchens initially seemed a bit Scrooged about the journey to Santa’s workshop.

But after the United Airlines’ 737 landed, the little girl from Streetsboro, who has spinal muscular atrophy, lit up like a 100-watt Christmas bulb as she was wheeled to a reception line of costumed superheroes and Disney princesses.

She glowed with delight as her wheelchair rolled into an area decorated with giant lollipops and candy canes, tinsel and balloons, game areas and Santa’s throne.


Nearby, Bryson Palmer, 9, of Toledo, who has had cancer and a double lung transplant, tore the gift-wrap off a box of LEGOs, while Miranda Candelario, 6, of Lorain, who has a mitochondrial disease, high-fived Iron Man.

The 25th Fantasy Flight to the North Pole from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport on Dec. 9 was a concerted effort in dream-fulfillment sponsored by United Airlines with the help of more than 80 volunteers.

The local version of this program, offered this year by United at 11 other airports from Hawaii to England, provided the opportunity for more than 20 children being treated at Cleveland area hospitals to fly the skies of whimsical imagination.

The children were suggested as candidates for the flight by these hospitals.

“Some of them are still really sick, and they have to come with their ventilators and their wheelchairs,” said Linda Jacobs, a United Airlines ticket agent and Fantasy Flight volunteer.

“But when they come here and they see the superheroes, and they see Santa Claus, and they see the face painters and the balloon makers, they can feel like they’re normal like every other kid, and they can be a part of something really special,” she added.

“It just makes such an impact on the lives of these families and their kids, because in just these few hours they can forget all the bad that’s going on in their lives, and focus only on the positive.”

The all-volunteer effort was supported by donations from area businesses and airport vendors.

“To put some joy in their lives, there’s just no words for it,” said volunteer Kim Bilancini, of Amherst.

United Airlines provided authentic touches that made fantasy seem like reality, such as listing the Cleveland-to-North-Pole flight on a departures screen, and posting that same designation at the gate.


Capt. Scott Burmeister, pilot of Flight 999 to Santa’s home, said this was his first Fantasy Flight.

He wanted to be involved because “it’s a great thing to help these kids and their families out, just give them a day that they can remember and something to look forward to. It’s a little mystery and a little hope. It’s awesome.”

The co-pilot, First Officer Ryan Tuori, making his second Fantasy Flight, noted, “This what Christmas is all about -– trying to bring some joy into the lives of people who need a little joy. Kind of forget some of their troubles and enjoy the holiday spirit.”

Kids and their families bounded down the ramp to the plane, where a one-hour flight was bound for some holiday-appropriate snow over Detroit and back to Cleveland.

The interior of jet was gaily bedecked with Christmas decorations, and flight attendants were adorned with reindeer antlers and twinkling lights.

Even the usual pre-flight instructions were delivered with a rhyming holiday touch, as in, “Santa doesn’t like smoking, and neither do we. If you choose to light up, we’ll fly you to jail for free.”

After the jet took off to a chorus of delighted squeals, students of the St. Joseph Academy of Cleveland, dressed like elves, got on the intercom to sing Christmas carols while a snack of chicken nuggets with macaroni and cheese was served.

“I love it,” said Jessa Nauman, 17, an academy student making her third Fantasy Flight. “It’s a great opportunity for the kids, and seeing them smile around Christmas is great.”

Passenger Bill Davis, an employee of the Taylor Rental Center in Berea that set up Santa’s “North Pole” at the airport terminal, said, “These kids, they tug at your heart strings. That’s why we do it. It’s for the kids.”

Just before landing, the interior lights were dimmed and all the cabin windows closed to add to the suspense. A little girl softly sang “Jingle Bells.”

The effect on the kids was magical as they entered a three-gate area that had been closed down and converted to the North Pole.

“It’s awesome. Very colorful. Just what I’d envision the North Pole being,” said Scott Palmer, as he watched his sons, Bryson and Braydon, run to greet Santa and Mrs. Claus.

“The kids love it. It’s like Christmas morning,” he added.

There was face-painting and bowling, hopscotching and dancing.

Fifty-seven personalized stockings for all the kids, hand-crafted by Pins and Needles of Cleveland, hung in neat rows.

“It’s wonderful,” said Salena Condelario as she watched her daughter, Miranda, greet a Golden Retriever therapy dog.

Sean Kirchens said his daughter Zoe had quickly overcome her initial crabbiness. “She loves it,” he said. “It’s just amazing how they’ve done this.”

And Ryan Albright, who brought his 6-year-old son Luke, who is being treated for pediatric cancer, couldn’t be more impressed.

As he looked around the North Pole, he said, “Oh my gosh, it’s unbelievable, the outpouring of love, and just making Christmas and the holidays a little more joyful for people who are going through some tough times.”

And, as volunteer Julie Hall noted, the effect on those youngest people, who truly believe in the holiday fantasy, can be remarkable.

“There’s still magic out there,” she said.

Just ask Luke Albright, who patiently waited in his Spider-Man face painting, for a chance to talk to Santa.

About what?

“What I want for Christmas,” Luke replied.

And that would be?

Luke shook his head and said, “I’m not telling anyone, except for Santa.”

Fantasies still count for something.