As a Walt Disney World cast member and founder of Oceans of Hope Foundation, Danny Paltjon is making positive waves for his community and fellow cast here in Florida by creating accessible spaces and fun activities for individuals with disabilities. His secret to success? Accept, adapt and achieve.
In 2003, Danny sustained a spinal cord injury and thought his “world was over not being able to move anything.” He soon realized though, it was just the beginning of his story.
“The day I accepted myself was the day a light switch went on,” Danny said. “I was able to adapt to my injury. I continued pushing through limits one door at a time, and I have been able to achieve anything I wanted to do.”
In addition to helping guests have a magical start to their trip as a Vacation Greeter in Magic Kingdom, Danny wanted to do more to empower people with disabilities. So, he founded Oceans of Hope Foundation – a nonprofit organization right here in Florida that helps individuals with limited or no mobility experience water activities like surfing and kayaking in safe and inclusive environments.
Pairing his passion for his organization and Disney, Danny helped host an extra special event for his fellow cast in recognition of National Disability Employment Awareness Month. Nearly 30 Disney VoluntEARS and Oceans of Hope volunteers teamed up to offer an exclusive adaptive surfing lesson at Typhoon Lagoon for cast members, their friends and families.
Among the participants were members of Enabled-FL, our Business Employee Resource Group for cast with disabilities and allies. It was a powerful event and a true demonstration of inclusion – it was especially meaningful being an event dreamed up by cast for cast.
“Before my turn, Danny could tell that I was nervous,” said cast member Rebecca. “We talked about my story and some of the emotions that were coming up for me – it was the first time I was publicly taking pride in my identity as someone who is disabled. It was so clear to me that Danny saw me as a whole person, and he was able to honor that in our conversation.”
After Danny’s pep talk, Rebecca was more than ready to take on the waves, and she ROCKED it! Making the event even more special? Her husband and daughter were there to support and celebrate alongside her.
“I’ve always had a very complex relationship with my disability,” Rebecca said. “When I saw this event posted, I just knew that this would be a chance to build a healthier relationship with my body and gain more trust in myself. Tonight showed me that Disney knows that regardless of abilities, all cast members are beautiful, valid, helpful and incredible.”
It’s people and stories like this that drives Danny to continue opening up doors for others.
“Every single event that we put on at Oceans of Hope, I just sit back and see all the smiles,” Danny said. “That’s what keeps me moving forward because those memories are priceless. It means the world to me.”
Here at Disney World, we’re committed to inclusion and ensuring all our cast and community members feel seen, heard and valued. Most recently, we donated $1.5 Million to 19 nonprofits including the Conductive Education Center of Orlando and Limbitless Solutions at the University of Central Florida – both of which empower confidence and increase accessibility for children and adults with motor disabilities or limb differences.
To read more about other amazing cast members and the work we’re doing in Florida, visit DisneyFlorida.com.