In recent weeks we have been talking about an event called Extra Life United, a time once a year for Extra Lifers to come and celebrate the previous year’s accomplishments with the kids who have been helped in children’s hospitals across North America. Only a small portion of the community attends, so what exactly is going to Extra Life United like? As this has been my first year attending ELU, I figured I would document my daily experiences.
It’s a funny thing, traveling. You can plan it months in advance, but the butterflies never seem to quiet in your stomach. Those butterflies kept me up most of the night on Monday, muttering about the things I had forgotten or the items left unpacked (the things that were not in fact forgotten or unpacked when I slipped out of bed to check). Those same internal jitters woke me after a night of pacing and triple checking itineraries and tickets to slowly, tensely move me into the shower before the sun had even begun to consider rising.
I don’t know why I am not a fan of flying. It’s awe inspiring to see a metal tube weighing the same as a small building defy gravity and hurtle through the air at ridiculous speeds. I suppose that I would just rather not be inside of it when it leaves the earth behind. Especially if it means that I have to be at the airport before the sun rises in the middle of a snowstorm. Despite that, I found myself boarding an airplane in the dark to make my way to Orlando, Florida for Extra Life United. Despite the misgivings about riding a bit of metal propelled at ridiculous speeds by two turbine engines, I’ll still move heaven and earth to get a window seat. Maybe I have that compulsion because subconsciously I’d like to know for sure if the plane is going to crash or not should something terrible happen. Morbid, I know, but years of disaster movies can make the mind turn in strange ways. Thankfully, after a brief de-icing on the runway, the flight proved uneventful. The couple sitting next to me were lovely traveling companions, demonstrating an admirable amount of focus and dedication to several episodes of Friday Night Lights. In a matter of hours we touched down in Orlando.
The Orlando airport appeared surprisingly calm, though I suppose it was silly of me to imagine disembarking into a swamped terminal on a Tuesday afternoon. Though a thunderstorm had recently passed through, the sun was out and the weather was a good fifty to sixty degrees warmer than the climate of the frozen tundra we call Minnesota (or Minnesnowta if we are feeling silly and sufficiently weathered). A great deal of my nervous anticipation melted away as I boarded the bus bound for the Coronado Springs Resort an hour from the airport. After a meager few minutes of relaxation next to a silent senior citizen, the remaining minutes of the journey were punctuated by one of the loudest temper tantrums I have ever had the displeasure of hearing. It had been a long day of travel for the southern family behind me and the tired child became inconsolable. It got to the point that the mother apologized to the other passengers and stated that if she could do something about it, it would have been done by now. Sealed in that bus of misery, we arrived at our destination after a period of resigned silence filled only with the gnashing, gnarling cries of a very young human who was very unhappy with the world.
Quickly scooping up my belongings and escaping into the relative quietude of a bustling hotel, I breathed a sigh of relief. A pleasant concierge from Illinois helped me get the lay of the land, giving me a once over of the various highlights of this particular Disney resort. The place has five bus stops around its perimeter. Five. When she pointed that fact out, it really impressed upon me how large the grounds of this picturesque place were. Done in a spanish style, the sprawling Coronado Springs Resort encircles a small, almost too perfect lake that I assume to be man-made. With flashy fountains, perfectly trimmed, green foliage, and hundreds of seemingly happy people around, I wondered how I had been transported to Starfleet Academy. Then I remembered Starfleet Academy is canonically near San Francisco, on the other side of the country. Silly me!
I made my way to my room, flopping gratefully down on the bed to take a few moments to center myself and enjoy the warm sunlight, a precious and rare commodity in the hostile northern climes at this time of year. Basking in the afternoon rays was nice for a few minutes, but I had come to Orlando to experience Extra Life United and that just wasn’t going to happen if I tried to catch sunbeams all day.
I walked through the meandering main complex of Coronado Springs, taking in the sights and sounds. Guided by several smiling people with authoritative looking badges, I found a bustling registration area filled with volunteers and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals staff along with the one and only Liz Aponte, who directed me to the main area of operations for Extra Life United in Veracruz Hall one of the largest convention spaces within the resort. Striding through rows of chairs, couches, televisions, and Xbox Ones, Jeromy “Doc” Adams was the eye of a focused, productive hurricane. Marshalling volunteers, staff, and even his own kids, he enlisted me in prepping the Xbox One stations for later in the evening and the coming days. Each needed to have controllers synced, codes input, and games downloaded while strategically applying the scant number of steady internet connections available in the convention space. The next several hours were a blur of working on Xbox Ones, losing my wallet, panicking about losing my wallet, finding my wallet, and working on more Xbox Ones.
The amount of prep work that goes into an event like Extra Life United hard to understate. Light technicians, experienced streamers, heavy lifters, everyone came together to create a space that really went all out to honor the cause and kids that Extra Life and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals stand for. Towering banner displays honor the heroes who will be joining the event in the next few days, lining the entrance with their accomplishments and well wishes from their friends and family. There are so many it can be overwhelming. Names like Chloe, age 8, who has been suffering from cancer; 16-year-old Aidan from British Colombia who lives with acute lymphoblastic leukemia; Alabama’s James, a 13-year-old with a combination of hydrocephalus, cerebral palsy, and dandy-walker syndrome; Taylor from Hawaii and her acute myelogenous leukemia at age 12; or 10-year-old Dayton from Louisiana who has complications from a traumatic motor vehicle accident. You walk through that space and see those faces and names - the faces and names of the people we fight for - and it all becomes a lot more real than the abstract idea of helping sick kids.
To hammer home that point even more, I had the pleasure in the midst of all the prep time craziness to meet the Emmons, the parents of Tori, the little girl who became the inspiration behind Extra Life in the first place. It would be difficult to understate the humility and grace that Victor and Jo Ellen put forth in their demeanors and slight Texan accents. Even though I had only met them, they treated me warmly, like an old friend. It made the convention center, 1,400 miles away from where I’ve put down my roots, feel like home.
As the prepping wound down to a minimum, we held a dress rehearsal for the coming night’s kickoff event. Jeromy hopped on stage and began making the last minute touches to how he would ring in Extra Life United 2016. Like a general preparing for battle, he made adjustments to the visual cues and presentation on the fly. But one of the highlights was the preview of Dominic’s Story - an eleven minute short film about Dominic Rooney and his family, a young baby who received a terminal cancer diagnosis and passed away before his second birthday. The Rooney’s were in attendance and saw the film for the first time during that rehearsal. The video ripped through the volunteers and preppers and there wasn’t a dry eye to be found. It’s a powerful, powerful testimonial about what Extra Life can be and what it can do, both for the kids and those who play for them. The rehearsal continued after that, but I had to excuse myself to regain my composure.
Before the actual event kickoff, Laurie, our Canadian programs and events manager, and I discovered that there had been a mixup in the staff shirts and that women’s and men’s sizes had been accidentally mixed, explaining the absurdly small size of my medium shirt and the difficulties that a few others on staff had encountered with their own shirts. With that minor mystery solved and a staff now wearing shirts that fit properly, we sallied forth to open the doors and welcome the onrush of amazing Extra Life people who had come to experience United. And you know what? Everyone was amazingly cool as they moved past us into the exhibit hall and filled the seating we had put out for them.They chatted with us, joked, and it might sound a bit sappy, but we really did feel united.
The presentation itself was incredible to watch unfold. It opened with two videos of Jessica and Joe who have been helped by Extra Life and Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, overcoming a brain tumor and living with cystic fibrosis respectively. The two of them took the stage with Doc afterward to talk about their experiences. Jessica was able to talk a bit about meeting Adam Sandler, Kevin James, and the rest of the cast of Pixels. Joe discussed how he manages to lead an active life with cystic fibrosis, which requires seven or more pills with every meal.
Following Joe and Jessica, the Emmons took the stage to talk about Tori and how honored they are that the Extra Life community has rallied around her name and generated tens of millions of dollars to help kids like her around North America. Then they introduced Sean and Trish Rooney. Dominic’s Story played to the packed audience of around 150 attendees. Their story full of heartache, triumph, and humor touched every single person in that room and I would be surprised if I found out someone in that room didn’t tear up. I had to leave midway through the video so I could be composed enough for what remained of the evening’s kick-off. In the teary aftermath of Dominic’s Story’s public debut, the Emmons and the Rooneys talked with one another and I swear that you could not find people with better hearts. The families consoled and bolstered one another while serving as inspirations for what we should strive for as Extra Life supporters.
Whatever you do, talk about it. Share your story and make it mean something.
The rest of the event consisted of a free-play time on the collection of PCs and Xbox Ones. People jumped and laughed in Just Dance 2016, hail maryed and fumbled in Madden, and rocketed around in Rocket League. It was a great opportunity to talk with the community and learn more about the people who had made the trip out from different ends of the earth to attend Extra Life United. I met Canadians, Kentuckians, Alaskans, and a fair number of people from other places. They all came to experience what has always been the essence of Extra Life - the willingness to come together as a community to do something amazing for kids who need help.
That about wrapped it up for the first day of Extra Life United. I retreated to the warm embrace of a delicious Texas bacon burger, which tasted like a slice of heaven after a day during which I was too busy to eat for over 16 hours. Then I made my way back to my room to write and recount the day’s activities.