LOS ANGELES (CBSLA) — Families of America’s fallen military heroes enjoyed a festive, holiday send-off at LAX before boarding the “Snowball Express” to Florida to enjoy some time at Disney World.

The all-expenses paid annual five day retreat provides the families with fun and inspiring programs and an opportunity to bond and give support to each other.

“I hate the reason why we’re a part of this,” one woman said. “But, it is what it is and we’re so grateful for this opportunity.”

Santa and Mrs. Claus arrived by helicopter to greet them, and a color guard, choir, and of course, the elves, sent them on their way in style.

The families are traveling via 13 donated American Airlines charter flights with all volunteer crews making stops in 22 cities across the country with dozens more traveling from around the world, including Guam, London, and Germany among others.

“It just feels better to be around people that have the same thing, you know,” one boy, who lost his father before he was born, said. “It feels good to have friends that are like that.”

Spearheaded by the Gary Sinise Foudation, the Snowball Express began in 2006, with a letter written by a fallen soldier to his wife, only to be opened should he perish in battle. While the letter expressed many things, one wish was that they visit Disneyland. From that letter, Snowball Express was created to bring together the children and surviving spouses of fallen U.S. military heroes for a healing retreat.

“They come from various small towns all over America,” actor Gary Sinise said. “They might be the only child in that school that’s lost a parent in military service, but when they come here, everybody is in the same place, so they get to heal, they get to bond and they get to make friends with people who are going through the same thing.”

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