Getting up-close with a sea urchin in the Wet Lab on Dreamnight

It’s 5pm at the Vancouver Aquarium on May 8, 2018. The doors close to the general public. But staff are not clocking out and heading home as they usually would. They’re bustling around, busy as a bee hive, getting everything just right for the special guests that will be arriving soon. It’s Dreamnight—the one night of the year where staff put on their volunteer hats and pull out all the stops to provide a true VIP experience to kids with chronic or life-threatening illnesses and their families.

Dreamnight guests hang out with Ollie, the Vancouver Aquarium’s otter mascot.

When they arrive, the families are greeted in the parking lot by Neil Tracey, an Interpretation Specialist for the Vancouver Aquarium whose day job is to lead demonstrations with the animals, but who, tonight, chooses the less flashy role of directing cars to parking spots and helping families to the door.

For him, it’s about setting the tone right out of the gate.

“I like being that welcoming first face, getting the families excited to be here. Dreamnight is about making things as easy and as positive as possible for the families.”

Speaking of easy, there’s no need for parents to pull out their wallets as they approach the gates; in fact, they won’t need them all night. Everything, from their entry to the Aquarium to White Spot burgers, snacks, entertainment and face painting, is free—just one part of the equation for giving these children a carefree experience filled with wonder.

And for volunteer Jody de Haas, whose days are spent as Design Manager at the Aquarium but who runs the ice cream stand tonight, dishing out free soft serve is her favourite part.

“Being able to give these kids ice cream, as much or as little as they want, seconds if they want, and seeing their faces is the best feeling.”

Ice cream seconds are always an option at Dreamnight.

With full reign of the Aquarium, the kids of all shapes and sizes, energy levels and mobilities find themselves face to face with spotted morays, sea lions, sharks and more, while dancing to musical entertainment by Bobs and Lolo, marveling at Graham Kita the Magic Guy and wrapping their arms around fuzzy mascots like Fin the Orca and Ollie the Otter. It all takes place in the company of families just like theirs, where their needs and behaviours are not just understood—they’re the norm.

And for the more than 140 volunteers on hand to help, the joy and wonder on the children’s faces tonight is infectious.

“Many volunteers came up to me at the end of the night with tears in their eyes thanking me for giving them the privilege of volunteering at the event,” says Lindsay Baker, Manager of Volunteer Services. “They really get to see how much the event means to the families that attend and are proud they can help create a night of fun for them.”

“They’ll tell me afterwards ‘Wow this event means so much to people that are here’ and they have tears in their eyes as they’re describing their experience.”

Nearly a thousand children and their families fill the Aquarium this Dreamnight, bursting with glee over everything from the pomp of the sea lions to the glowing jellies to the warmth and attentiveness of the staff.

Young and young-at-heart guests admire the mesmerizing jellies in the Tropics gallery

And it’s their delight that drives the hive.

“An hour before the doors open everyone is scrambling to provide the best experience for guests,” says Jody. “It brings all the departments together.” For volunteers, the teamwork required is all worth it to put on a spectacular night for families who have seen more hardships than most. “They enjoy themselves, go home and feel like they had a great night, and you realize this is why you work here.”

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