Riding High at Play Day

Jasper Middle School seventh-grader Sean Woodard was overcome with excitement as he rode his first roller coaster of the day, The Raven, on May 9 during the 21st annual Holiday World Play Day. Approximately 2,500 children with disabilities and their chaperones from throughout the tri-state area were registered to visit the park that day with their teachers and adult chaperones. School groups from preschool through high school from throughout southern Indiana, southern Illinois and western Kentucky participated in the event that benefits the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville.

Story by Alexandra Sondeen
Photos by Dave Weatherwax

A leaf blower drowned out the sound of the water fountain at Holiday World the morning of May 9 as workers scurried to finish last-minute preparations for the most special day of the park’s season.

A few families had arrived early, the children chattering excitedly and some dashing around while their guardians tried to keep track of them. Soon enough, school bus after school bus pulled up to the entrance with children and their adult chaperones spilling out to join the growing crowd.

“Look at all these hands! My gosh!” exclaimed Theresa Luebbehusen, a teacher at Jasper Middle School, as she was swamped by her students, eagerly holding out their hands to grab their admission tickets. “I just can’t go fast enough!”

The gates swung open and the moment had arrived. Play Day was in session.

Every year since 1993, Holiday World has started its season with a day reserved just for children with special needs. The park donates 2,500 tickets to the Easter Seals Rehabilitation Center in Evansville, which sells them at a discounted rate through the schools in its 30-county service area.
The proceeds from the sales then benefit the rehabilitation center.

“For a lot of our staff, this is their favorite day of the year,” Holiday World spokeswoman Paula Werne said. “It gets us all in a really good frame of mind for the season. We know these kids are truly enjoying themselves. Santa always says he gets the biggest hugs on Play Day.”

Jasper High School senior Manuel Jara, left, and junior Adam Schwartz rode the Scarecrow Scrambler together.

Werne proposed the idea for Play Day after attending a convention for the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions in 1992 at which a representative from another park talked about a special event for children with disabilities.

Jasper Middle School instructional assistants Lisa Brewer, left, Jane Renner and Denise Smith watched their students on the HallowSwings ride.

“As a mom, that really appealed to me,” Werne said. “To have a special day where you could kind of slow down operations to help kids get in and out and everyone would understand. I approached Will Koch (park president and CEO at the time) about it and I’ve always been proud that he immediately said yes.”

Pam Kirk, director of marketing and community relations for the rehabilitation center, said the Easter Seals jumped on the chance to partner with Holiday World.

“Play Day is such a special program on so many levels,” she said. “It just gives the kids a chance to be kids for a day without the worries they might usually have. They don’t feel rushed or have to wait in long lines and there’s no pressure regardless of their abilities. The staff really bends over backwards and does absolutely everything in their power to make sure the kids are having the time of their lives.”

Over 21 years, the program has raised more than $308,000 for the rehabilitation center.

“When Holiday World started Play Day, we had no idea that it would continue for over 20 years,” Kirk said. “The proceeds have made a big impact on our organization and the people we serve.”

Some of the funding each year always goes toward therapy services for children. The remaining money is used for varying needs like playground equipment and summer camps. This year, some will go to the Milestones Child Development Center.

“We get so much back just from the smiles and hugs and the laughter,” Werne said. “I couldn’t imagine ever not wanting to do it. Play Day is so important to us and to who we are, what we’re all about.”

Laughter and screams of delight are the soundtrack for the day. Some groups start the day poring over a map of the park and making plans about which rides to visit. Others simply rush to their favorite ride or the first thing they see, leaving their chaperones hustling to keep up.

Dubois Elementary School third-graders Braiden Beckman, left, and Preston Brinkman reacted after classmate Gabe Newland made a basket while playing a basketball game. Gabe won an Indiana University banner while playing the game.

“This is going to be a long day,” said Jennifer Wright, a special education teacher at Dubois Elementary School. “But it’s so much fun, too.”

 Dubois Elementary School third-graders Braiden Beckman, left, and Gabe Newland rode the Sparkler swing ride together.

The morning passed in a flurry of activity. The Raven, The Legend and The Voyage roller coasters saw lots of activity, as did lower-key rides like the Scarecrow Scrambler, Liberty Launch, Revolution and the new Sparkler swing ride.

Ingrid Bies, 14, of Jasper is an eighth-grader at Jasper Middle School with Angelman syndrome who doesn’t speak and needed to be pushed around the park in a stroller. After lunch, children swamped the Raging Rapids ride for a chance to get wet and cool off from the afternoon sun. While waiting to board a raft, Ingrid couldn’t contain her excitement.

With her eyes and mouth wide open, she brought her fists to her chest and started shaking with glee. She repeated the mannerism as she was whisked away on the pounding rapids.

“You can’t get much happier than that,” said Donna Gootee, an instructional assistant traveling with the group.

At the HallowSwings, Gootee assisted 12-year-old Sierra Martindale, a Jasper sixth-grader, get into a swing. Sierra has cerebral palsy and gets around in a wheelchair; she can walk short distances with lots of help. Gootee lifted Sierra into the seat and helped her strap in before the ride hoisted her into the air.

Sierra held her arms out in the breeze for a time, smiling and yelling with joy, as the ride swung her in circles high over the park.

“Did you hear me?” she said, laughing, after she was helped back into her wheelchair. “I sounded like George of the Jungle.”

Eighth-grader Alex Britzman found happiness in racking up 2,550 points on the Gobbler Getaway ride shooting turkeys with a laser gun. The 14-year-old, who has off-spectrum autism, dedicated his points to his great-grandfather Charles Kuebler. Kuebler was killed in action during World War II in France in 1945.

“I did that for my grandpa,” he said proudly as his friends congratulated him on his score. “He’s in heaven.”

Clouds began to roll in as the day wound down and children squeezed in a few more rides before the park closed.

Norah Klem, 9, a third-grader at Dubois Elementary who has autism and Sturge-Weber syndrome, had time to ride her favorite roller coaster, The Howler in Holidog’s FunTown, five more times with her mother, Tasha. Each time the short coaster stopped, Norah said, “Again!” and off she went, her blond curls blowing in the wind.

Jasper Middle School sixth-grader Sierra Martindale showed the stuffed toys she got during her visit to Holiday World to her instructional assistant Donna Gootee as they waited to board the bus at the end of day.

On the way out of the park, Norah caught the last ride of the day on Reindeer Games, yelling tiredly as the ride bounced her up and down. She slid out of her seat and tucked a small stuffed dog — buying the stuffed animals at a gift shop is tradition for her when visiting Holiday World — under each arm before willingly following her mother out of the park.

“She’s exhausted,” her mom said. “I’m exhausted. But it’s been a great day.”

Contact Alexandra Sondeen at asondeen@dcherald.com.

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