Dreams came true in “paradise” and happy tears were shed as 192 seriously ill and disabled children, including two from Northern Ireland, swam with dolphins in Florida at the weekend.
The group - taken on the holiday of a lifetime by the charity Dreamflight - enjoyed the grand finale of the trip when they took to the water with dolphins at a hot and sunny Discovery Cove in Orlando.
Now in its 27th year, the British Airways-supported annual trip to the US came to a close on Monday when the group travelled home on a chartered plane.
The children left their families behind over a week ago and have been looked after by volunteers - 15 doctors, 50 nurses, a team of physios and a host of escorts.
Billed as the highlight of the week-long adventure, the dolphin swim and kiss at the SeaWorld park made a big impression on the children - while the grown-ups fought back tears of joy and pride.
Ryan Shannon, 14, from Belfast, and Michael Bowes, also 14, from Killyclogher, County Tyrone, became firm friends on the trip.
Michael said he had the “best time of my life”, and urged other children to grasp the opportunity if they are offered it.
“If you think you’re going to miss your parents...you won’t,” he said.
The pair talked about how busy they have been in the last seven days, and Ryan joked that he found the early starts difficult.
While Michael said tiredness set in due to all the early rises, late nights and walking around theme parks, electric wheelchair user Ryan quipped: “Well, driving for me!”
Television gardener Charlie Dimmock, an escort on the trip, said she found it difficult to contain her emotions.
“I have to say that swimming with the dolphins - all the children - it’s what they’re building up to so it’s great that we do it at the end of the holiday,” she said.
“For us adults watching, because we’ve got to know the children well over the time, it’s always a bit teary.
“We always wear sunglasses so nobody can see us welling up because they just do love it so much.”
Dimmock described her role as being demanding but very enjoyable, and spoke about how beneficial the trip is for the children.
“It gives them a lot of confidence and independence,” she said.
The total cost of the trip is around £750,000, all of which is funded by voluntary contributions and covers chartering a Boeing 747, medical equipment and medication, swimming with dolphins, police security and communications equipment.
Other attractions visited included Magic Kingdom, Universal Studios, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Islands of Adventure.
The children were waved off by hordes of airport staff from a hangar at Heathrow as they set off on the holiday just over a week ago.
Sir Cliff Richard - a supporter of the charity - burst into a rendition of his hit Summer Holiday through the plane’s PA system.
Organisers are now beginning work on next year’s trip.
Children get the opportunity to go on the Dreamflight trip after being nominated by doctors and other medics.
Prices for the Discovery Cove Ultimate Package - which includes the 30 minute dolphin swim experience and all meals, plus 14 day unlimited entry to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica - start from £169 per person.
For more information about the charity see www.dreamflight.org, and for information about Discovery Cove see www.seaworldparks.co.uk.