Kids' dolphin dream is a splash hit
Dreams came true in "paradise" and happy tears were shed as 192 seriously ill and disabled children from the UK swam with dolphins in Florida.
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 will come to a close today when the group travels 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.
Nicole Lewtas, 14, from the Wirral, said is was a "dream come true", adding: "I never knew dolphins were so clever."
Nicole described her surroundings as being "like paradise", and said she will struggle to describe to her parents just how brilliant the holiday has been.
"I don't think I'll be able to put it down in words," she said.
Speaking about the charity, she said: "I feel very proud to say I've been on a holiday with Dreamflight.
"I think the people who work for this charity are inspirational and I feel inspired by them."
Nicole said it is going to be hard to say goodbye to everyone.
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.
Kaitlin Stewart, 12, from Dundee, said the dolphin experience was "so fun", and backed up Dimmock's claims.
"It's made me think a lot more that I can do stuff on my own without needing help so much," she said.
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!"
Hamza Abdullah Alqadi, 11, from Oxford, described the experience as "awesome" and said nothing compares to a dolphin.
Imagining how he is going to relay all of his stories to his parents, he said: "I've got so much to tell them.
"I knew it was going to be the holiday of a lifetime.
"I want to go back in time and do it all again."
Aaron McLaren, nine, from Edinburgh, said if he could put into words what he thought of the trip he would, but said it was "just so speechless and brilliant".
Aaron said he thought the dolphin had a "fishy breath" when he kissed him, but said he was "quite cute" nonetheless.
He said he had made "five friends" on the trip and said his highlights were rollercoasters, ice-cream and dolphins.
Sisters Georgia and Lottie Conley, aged 13 and 11, from Bedford, said swimming with dolphins was "maybe even better" than they thought it would be.
Lottie described it as a "once in a lifetime opportunity", while Georgia said she was looking forward to seeing the photographs.
Shoaib Khan, 13, from London, was impressed by the dolphins' ability to follow instructions, and spoke of the lack of limitations the children on the trip faced. "It was a lovely experience," he said.
Eve Marie Kelly, 10, from Leicester, said swimming with dolphins was "magical" and said it was probably the best day of her life.
Demi Swindin, 13, from Coventry, said: "I can't describe it, it's that good."
The teenager said the trip overall had been life-changing.
Noah Cunningham, nine, from Southport, said swimming with dolphins was definitely the highlight of his holiday.
Reflecting on rubbing the animal's back and belly, he said: "It felt really strange."
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 last weekend.
Sir Cliff Richard - a supporter of the charity - burst into a rendition of his hit Summer Holiday through the plane's PA system.
When the group return to the UK tomorrow morning, organisers will begin to 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.