It was party time Saturday at Salt Lake City International Airport’s Gate G-5 for a group of Utahns noted more for somber memorials and grief-filled reflections than for merrily posing with a green-faced Grinch in a hastily created Whoville.

Lighthearted celebrating, though, was precisely the point: The festivities were set up for gold star families from Utah, all of whom have lost a loved one in the military, as they prepared to hop on the “Snowball Express” for an all-expense paid trip to Disney World in Orlando.

The 30 travelers from all over the Wasatch Front — 10 families with 20 children among them — have spent months or years mourning their losses and remaking lives that were so horribly disrupted. This was a chance to have some good old American fun.

Jennie Taylor, widow of fallen Utah soldier Brent Taylor, the former North Ogden mayor, was in the terminal with five of her seven children (only those older than 5 could go).

She has never been to Disney World but was excited to go with her kids, Jennie Taylor said. “It’s been a long and tough year as we adjust to our new normal. It’s a big opportunity to escape from all that and really celebrate.”

Jacob Taylor, 8, was wearing a T-shirt that read: “My dad is my hero.”

All of them have that shirt as a way to remember Brent Taylor, who was killed in Afghanistan by a rogue Afghan soldier a little more than a year ago.

Brooke Walters, of Layton, was in the terminal with her 10-year-old daughter, Reagan Jenkins.

Reagan was 5 weeks old when her dad, Capt. Cory Jenkins, died from injuries suffered when "enemy forces attacked his vehicle with an improvised explosive device.”

Baby Reagan “never saw her dad,” Walters said, but she tells her daughter all about him and there are plenty of photos.

Plus, the mother said with a catch in her throat, “she looks just like him.”

Jenkins, who has since remarried and has four more children, said, “It is humbling to realize that even after 10 years, people still pay attention and care about him and us.”

The trip and trappings known as “Snowball Express” were provided by actor Gary Sinise, who played Lt. Dan in the film “Forrest Gump,” among many other roles. The foundation — in collaboration with American Airlines and other sponsors — wanted a way to bring together the children and surviving spouses of fallen U.S. military heroes for a healing retreat.

This year, there are about 1,700 family members going.

“While we can never truly repay the debt we owe these families, we can strive to show each of them our appreciation and gratitude whenever possible to ensure they know that we never forget,” Sinese said in a letter read to the families. “We are all here today to give our families a wonderful send-off as they get ready to board the airplanes, taking them to spend a joyful five days with Mickey and Minnie and Donald and Daisy, Goofy, Pluto, and all the rest of your friends at the happiest place on earth.”

On Saturday morning, a couple of dozen teens in brightly colored costumes with Clayton Productions entertained the departing families — as well as dozens of members of every branch of the military — with several song-and-dance numbers.

Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski could be seen greeting the families, and handing out medals she had made for “members of my team who are in the military.”

Amy Johnson, of Fruit Heights, was taking the trip with her three boys, Parker, 16, Joel, 14, and Brayden, 12.

Johnson’s husband, Army Spc. Geoffrey Johnson, died in Baghdad in 2008, of “injuries sustained in a noncombat related incident.”

He was only in the military for two years, Johnson said, with just 11 months in Iraq.

When her husband first joined the Army, Johnson said, she didn’t know what gold star families were but often saw they got special perks like reserved parking places. She wondered what you had to do to get those privileges.

Now she knows, the widow said ruefully, it’s not a club she or anyone else would want to join.

Still, she was glad for a chance to take her kids to Disney World.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the families piled onto the special “Snowball Express,” an American Airlines chartered jet, whose interior was bedecked in paper snowflakes, hanging cotton balls and white garlands strung up and down the aisles. It had a pilot dressed like Santa, with angels and elves as flight attendants.

And then they were off on a new adventure.