Wheel of Fortune is a classic TV standby for many viewers in America. But for its prize-winning contestants, the competition can have life-changing results.
Pat Sajak and Vanna White kicked off their 35th anniversary season of the longstanding series Monday. To celebrate the $250 million in cash and prizes the show has awarded in its 35 year history, its cohosts are filming four weeks of Disney-themed episodes and digging into their vault of letters from grateful past contenders to share their stories.
“We had one woman that they adopted a child. And of course they’d send the pictures ‘Here’s the child I adopted,’” White tells PEOPLE. “It’s very heartwarming to see those letters come in, how it has affected so many people.”
White adds that other couples use their prize money for weddings, or use the trips they won for their honeymoons.
“We have made a lot of people happy,” says White. “People pay off their student loans, they buy their first homes, they go on honeymoons, they buy cars that they’ve never had. So it changes a lot of people’s lives.”
Since the show added a Million Dollar Bonus wedge to the wheel in 2008, there have been three lucky contestants who went home with the show’s $1 million prize. A win like that can change someone’s life in a big way.
“One guy did win a brand new car, and he turned to Pat and he said ‘I don’t have to take the bus anymore,’” says White. “So that was something.”
White also says some contestants have used the money to help others. “We’ve had other people that have taken the money and have started charities, or have helped organizations that help other people, not just themselves,” she says.
Three weeks this season were taped at Walt Disney World Resort’s Epcot Theme Park, which is also celebrating its 35th anniversary — a pairing Sajak finds fitting.
“It’s the same people watching our show : they’re grandmothers, and they’re kids, and they’re grandkids. It cuts across generations,” Sajak says. “It’s something you can do together as a family.”