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How a radio show made this Forsyth County family's Disney dream come true
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Sam Van Winkle, 8, handles Thor's hammer at the Georgia Aquarium in December 2019. (Photo by Bert's Big Adventure)

The families were looking at the beluga whales at the Georgia Aquarium when Bert Weiss walked in. A production crew followed the popular Atlanta-based radio host of "The Bert Show," who apologized for being late.

George and Bethany Van Winkle and the other 12 families circled Weiss to listen. This, Weiss said, was the final round of interviews for Bert’s Big Adventure, the non-profit Weiss created in 2002 to give children with chronic and terminal illnesses a trip to Disney World.

The Forsyth County couple were excited just to be there with their 8-year-old son, Sam. Parenting a child with Down syndrome can be demanding, and they don’t have relatives nearby.

“We rarely go out,” Bethany said.

“We were showing up for the free dinner, basically,” George quipped.

As Weiss explained things, George and Bethany realized Sam was missing. They turned back to the beluga whale tank, looked around, then turned back to Weiss.

There, they saw Sam smiling up at the nationally-syndicated radio host.

“Hi,” he said to Weiss, “I’m Sam!”

“Hey,” Weiss said, “I’m Bert! Wanna come with me?”

Sam took Weiss’s hand, and the two led the group through large double-doors into the aquarium’s Oceans Ballroom.

Sam was the first to see them – there was Spider-man and Thor, princesses Belle and Elsa, a stormtrooper and R2D2.

“We were overwhelmed,” Bethany said. “We’re all like, what’s happening?”

Weiss explained: this wasn’t the final interview, after all. They were going to Disney World.

“It just made our world,” Bethany said.

The Van Winkles will spend five days in Disney World, from Feb. 19-24, with all expenses paid by Bert’s Big Adventures. They’ll take a special plane from Atlanta to Orlando and won’t have to check a bag; Bert’s Big Adventures is driving it to Orlando for the families. They’ll stay in Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort where they can catch the monorail.

Photographers will document the trip for them and post updates on the organization’s website and social media accounts. Two doctors and two nurses will accompany the group to help those with special medical conditions.

Extra surprises are in store, too.

“The way they’re doing this for us is not the way we could’ve done Disney,” George said, “so we’re really excited.”

Sam was a Disney fan nearly from birth. Early on, Bethany and George weren’t sure if Sam would learn to speak, so they used sign language. One of his first words was, “Mickey.”

Then Sam saw the movie “Toy Story” at 3, and his Disney fandom was set. Everywhere they went, Sam carried a doll of Woody, one of the main characters. Bethany and George made sure to keep extras.

The Van Winkles had been saving for a Disney trip on their own, until last year, when Bethany was diagnosed with breast cancer. She overcame it, but the medical bills meant Disney “wasn’t an option,” George said.

An avid listener of “The Bert Show,” George knew all about Bert’s Big Adventure, and he knew their family met all the requirements for the program: they’d never been to Disney, and Sam had a chronic or terminal illness. Along with Down Syndrome, Sam has a congenital heart defect called Tetralogy of Fallot, which required two open-heart surgeries when he was a baby. He’ll need another in the future, Bethany said.

So George applied last spring. Eventually, Bert’s Big Adventure called him for an interview. Then the Van Winkles were invited to the aquarium. In two weeks, they’ll pack their bags for Disney.

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Bethany (from left), Sam and George Van Winkle celebrate with Star Wars characters after being selected for Bert's Big Adventure, an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World. (Photo by Bert's Big Adventure)

Bethany and George are excited for themselves: it’s a rare opportunity to go on a vacation without the extra dose of stress that comes with being parents of a special needs kid.

“To just go somewhere and it be worry-free is a huge deal for us,” Bethany said, “and I’m sure the other families as well.”

They’ve also already formed connections with the other families going on the trip. They chat on Facebook. After the trip, they’ll get to reconnect at “family reunions” that Bert’s Big Adventure hosts in the spring, summer, fall and winter.

But they’re more excited for Sam. He’s never been on a rollercoaster, never been to an amusement park, even though it could suit his personality. A second-grader at Coal Mountain Elementary School, Sam is a “daredevil,” Bethany said.

“I don’t know what he’s going to do,” Bethany said. “I just can’t wait to see his face.”