By Jeyme Colodne
On Feb 19, 12 families will board a plane bound for the happiest place on Earth: Walt Disney World. For four days they will meet their favorite Disney characters, attend fun and fantastical shows, and spend quality time together. Although this may sound like a fairy tale on the surface, this trip is much more special. These families are composed of terminally and chronically ill children and this trip will be the first one for them- which makes it all the more unique and amazing. This trip, Bert’s Big Adventure, began with the vision and determination of Q100 radio personality Bert Weiss and his wife Stacey. Amidst his planning for the 2010 trip, Bert sat down with Buzz Entertainment Magazine to explain how it all got started.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: How did Bert’s Big Adventure begin?
Bert Weiss: I’ll tell you what I modeled it after, maybe that’s a good place to start – There are three trips like this around the country – one is in Dallas, one is in Charlotte and there is ours. I use to work for a morning show in Dallas and I took that trip for two years as a member of the support staff.
I thought if I ever hosted a show in my own city, this was going to be one of the first things I bring to the city because I really saw what it did for the families and how it brought them together and connected them. And when I got the job in Atlanta, one of the first things (my wife) Stacey and I did was to start putting this trip together.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: How is your trip different from the others?
BW: Our trip is different in that we purposely have kept it small, there are only 12-13 families that go on Bert’s Big Adventure every year and that’s by design. We keep it at that number because then we can get intimate with the families – I know all of their names, everybody is accountable and my staff can hang out with each family.
Also if we keep the size of the trip the way it is right now, Disney can get us into different VIP places that they can’t otherwise if the group was any bigger. To me the trip is really more about quality then quantity.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: Is it difficult to select the families?
BW: It’s a really difficult choice, and that is mostly why I put it in the hands of the medical staff. We have more and more applications that are coming in as the program grows – and as the morning show grows every year. Every one of the families that applies certainly deserves it – so to try to pick the families that are in the direst need is heart wrenching sometimes, especially when you are down to the last couple of families.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: Since the first trip in 2003, Bert’s Big Adventure has helped so many kids – Did you ever anticipate it becoming this big of a success?
BW: I let this (foundation) form by itself, so that’s a hard question to answer, because I was happy letting it form the way it did, I didn’t really have a goal for it. But I did know this – a couple of years ago when we were getting more pressure from sponsors to make the trip bigger, I knew at that point that the right thing to do was to keep it small and intimate for the families.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: Why did you choose Disney World as the place for Bert’s Big Adventure?
BW: Disney World will always be at the epicenter of the foundation because Disney has woven itself into the fabric of every American family – Every kid has been touched by Disney in one way or another – everyone knows Disney. It’s such a magical place where magical things happen.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: There must be many, but what are some of your most memorable moments from the trips?
BW: There are so many, but from this most recent trip there was a child named Devon who had Cerebral Palsy and he was in a walker when the trip first started and by the end of the trip he had taken his first steps without his walker for the very first time. By the end of the trip he wasn’t using his walker at all and we just had a Bert’s Big Adventure reunion where his mother told me that the trip to Disney changed his outlook on walking.
The vision of him walking around for the very first time and his mom watching him will always be in my mind. The fact that she isn’t worried anymore and he’s doing better and that started on our trip is a big deal and very special for me. It’s an attitude that I hope all kids have and take back with them, that confidence in themselves.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: You are launching a magazine about Bert’s Big Adventure called Magical Moments Magazine – Can you tell us a little bit about the publication and why you chose to create one?
BW: The initial vision was that we would have an issue come out two to three times a year but we packed so much material into the first one that I think we will do it once a year. It has a few different purposes. We weren’t capturing all the trips in video correctly, as much as we tried, and this magazine has been the best example of what the trip was about. The other purpose was to get it in the hands of families that might be at children’s hospitals or oncology wards so that they could learn more about Bert’s Big Adventure.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: You held a reunion pool party for 25 Bert’s Big Adventure families this year – what was the best part of reconnecting with these families and seeing the kids again?
BW: Well, we’ve done the trip since 2003 – so to see the kids from older trips all grown up has been great. It’s really fun to see them healthy, still making their way through life and the bigger part of it for me is connecting all the families and helping them stay in touch. They are talking and leaning on each other and that’s what the reunions are all about.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: You see so many different children each year, some of whom don’t make it back to the reunions – is it difficult to stay positive and hopeful?
BW: Well, when we’re on the trip there is not a depressing moment at all. The funny thing about Disney is that even the sickest kids when they get to the park, they seem to forget they are sick and they are laughing and running around.
Now, when we get back and some of the kids end up back in the hospitals then it’s like a reality check and its heart breaking. Especially when we’ve seen them in their best state – happy and energetic for four days in Disney but then when I get a call that they’re back in the hospital we’ll go and visit them and it’s extremely hard to watch that transition.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: How is Bert’s Big Adventure branching out beyond the trip to Disney?
BW: It’s getting to be a larger community, so it’s more difficult to visit everyone so what we’re doing now is creating a program with different volunteers where any time a Bert’s Big Adventure child goes into the hospital, they will be visited daily by a Bert’s Big Adventure staff member.
That’s one area where we never anticipated that this organization would go, and it’s just grown organically. When Stacey, Amy (Moosbrugger, Program Director for Bert’s Big Adventure) and I were visiting families in the hospital we realized that sometimes there will be days where no one visits them, and now when you’re part of Bert’s Big Adventure, you’re part of our family.
Buzz Entertainment Magazine: What are your hopes for the future of Bert’s Big Adventure?
BW: I don’t have any grand vision for it – as the needs come up we’ll fill them. I think what I’m looking at now, outside of the trip, is making that hospital experience a little happier for them. The trip gets better every year, so now we’re trying to figure out ways to take care of the families when they get back to Atlanta.