Disney Weekend Combines Fun, Serious Issues
Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
For Kali Abdullah, a trip to the Walt Disney World resort here was the ultimate escape from her rough neighborhood in Washington, where drugs are sold on the streets, many teenagers carry weapons, and some children plan their own funerals because they do not expect to reach adulthood.
"I worry about people bringing guns to my school. It's bad,'' said 13-year-old Kali, who was one of 13,000 disadvantaged children from across the nation who got an expenses-paid visit last month to Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., or Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. An additional 7,000 children from other countries got similar treatment at Disney's parks near Tokyo and Paris.
The U.S. children were selected by social-service agencies and the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group. For most, it was their first visit to a Disney park. Most of their three or four days here were spent at parades and parties, on rides such as the Space Mountain roller coaster and Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, and rubbing elbows with the likes of Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Goofy and Sinbad, the comedian.
But the Walt Disney Company, which, along with Delta Air Lines, picked up the tab for the event, also sought to use the Nov. 19-21 event to spotlight serious children's issues.
"This is a party with a purpose,'' Michael Eisner, the chairman and chief executive of Disney, said at a children's-issues breakfast. "We do feel a strong obligation to children.''
Children Fear Violence
The highlight of the more serious side of the weekend was the participation of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the First Lady, in a one-hour children's forum televised on the Disney Channel from Epcot Center, one part of the Disney entertainment complex.
Mrs. Clinton reacted to a nationwide survey of children, commissioned for the forum by the C.D.F. and Newsweek magazine, which found that fear of violent crime was the top worry of today's youths.
Fifty-six percent of the 758 children surveyed said they worry that a family member will become a victim of violent crime. And though most of the children said they felt safe at school, fewer than half of their parents, 45 percent, said they believed their children were very safe at school.
"I worry when some of you say you aren't safe,'' Mrs. Clinton told the children at the forum.
Asked by one girl how guns and drugs could be kept out of schools, Mrs. Clinton said, "I'm sorry you even have to ask that question. We have to have better discipline in our schools.''
Mrs. Clinton endorsed the use of metal detectors to screen students for weapons and stronger security around school buildings.
"We've got to have more police officers around schools,'' she said. But school authorities cannot by themselves address the problems of weapons and drug use among young people, she said.
"Kids are going to have to tell adults about other kids who are using drugs'' or carrying weapons, she said. "I know that is hard.''
Children might balk at turning in their classmates, Mrs. Clinton said, but they can do it anonymously--by writing a note to authorities, for example.
"We may be able to help them,'' she said.
Asked by another child how to stem gang violence, Mrs. Clinton said, "We are going to have to give more direction to these young men and women who join gangs because they want to belong to something.''
Earlier in the forum, Miguel Vides, a teenager from Middlebury, Vt., said children have "become very desensitized to violence.''
Marian Wright Edelman, the president of the Children's Defense Fund, said that in the nation's capital, children who have seen others their age struck down by gunfire "are already planning their funerals instead of playing hopscotch.''
Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado told the meeting that the key issues were the easy availability of guns and the disintegration of the family.
"We've got to get guns out of the hands of kids,'' he said, noting his state's efforts to toughen penalties for juveniles caught with guns. "But, basically, we have to work on the family. Our families are not working as well as they should.''
A 'Glass-Slipper Weekend'
Youth violence and drug abuse are not the usual topics of discussion in the controlled and sanitized environment of Walt Disney World, where fantasy and escapism rule.
Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna E. Shalala, another participant in the issues events, noted that "thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds are having the time of their lives'' during the weekend at Walt Disney World. "But what will their tomorrow really look like? Will they still fear that they can be shot on the way home from school?''
She called the event a "glass-slipper weekend'' for the several thousand children who truly seemed able to leave their worries at home, even if it was only a temporary respite from poverty, homelessness, or foster care.
Kimberly Washington, a 12-year-old from nearby Tampa, Fla., said she was making her first visit to Walt Disney World. Although she lives less than two hours' drive from the theme park, her parents have never been able to afford a visit, she said.
Kimberly was one of two students from her school selected to attend. "They said that if you've ever been here before, you couldn't be chosen,'' she said.
Aisha Brown, a 12-year-old from Orlando, said she was thrilled to have the chance to talk with a group of Japanese tourists at Epcot Center.
"They were teaching us some Japanese words,'' she said.
Celebrating Children's Day
The "Worldwide Kids' Party'' was the first time in five years that disadvantaged youths from across the country were brought to Disney parks, company officials said. The children were generally between the ages of 8 and 12, from rural and urban communities, and would not otherwise have the opportunity to make such a trip, officials said.
The party was tied to two events--the 65th "birthday'' of Mickey Mouse and the first National Children's Day, Nov. 21, as designated by a Congressional resolution.
Mrs. Clinton recalled that after each Mother's Day and Father's Day when she was a child, "My brothers would ask, 'When are we going to have children's day?' And my mother would say, 'Every day is children's day.' Unfortunately, in today's times, every day is not a children's day.''
Geoffrey Canada, the president of Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families, a social-services organization in New York City, said many of the children here had never felt so safe before.
"The faces on these children are just something to see,'' he said, adding that they need similarly safe experiences in their own communities.
"Our children want to have fantasy,'' Mr. Canada said. "But in the end, they want to go back home and find that people care about them.''