Gordon Hartman created the world’s first ultra-accessible theme park for his daughter, Morgan, who has disabilities.
At the time, 12-year-old Morgan had a form of autism and the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old, and her father, Gordon, realized that people typically didn’t know how to interact with people with disabilities. He had seen Morgan trying to play with other children in a swimming pool, but the children quickly left the pool because, as Gordon says, they don’t know how to react to someone with a disability.
The BBC reported that Gordon and his wife, Maggie, asked other parents where they could take their daughter where she would feel comfortable, and others would feel comfortable interacting with her, and they came to the realization that such an inclusive place did not exist.
This incident played on Gordon’s mind, and realizing there were no theme parks where his disabled daughter could freely play, he decided to build one himself! After creating the non-profit organization, Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, to help people with disabilities, Gordon sold his home-building businesses and set about building a multi-million dollar theme park for his daughter.
“Morgan is just a wonderful young lady. When you meet her, you will always get a smile and she will always want to offer a hug. But there were so many times we couldn’t take her places.”
Hartman created the “world’s first ultra-accessible theme park” called Morgan’s Wonderland, where everyone can do everything, and people with and without special needs can play.
Gordon consulted with doctors, therapists, parents, and people with and without disabilities, and the facilities were built on a 25-acre disused quarry site in San Antonio, Texas. The park, which cost $34 million, opened in 2010. Some of the attractions include a miniature train, an adventure playground, and a fully accessible Ferris wheel.
There is also a carousel with specially designed chariots for wheelchairs that go up and down alongside the animals. Gordon reveals that Morgan was wary of this ride at the beginning, and it took three years before she would go on the carousel.
“When we opened she was too scared to go on it. She didn’t understand why it was going around and the animals were going up and down. First she would stand near it, then she’d get on an animal but we wouldn’t start it. It was a slow process but now she loves going on it. Overcoming something she was scared of meant a lot to her. Little things achieved in play can make a big difference.”
Since its opening, over one million visitors from 67 countries and from all 50 American states have visited Morgan’s Wonderland. One-third of their staff has disabilities, and there is no entrance fee for any guest with a condition.
“I realized Morgan was one of the lucky ones because she had many of the things she needed. I didn’t want cost to be a barrier for others with special needs. We open every year knowing we’re going to lose over $1 million and we need to recover that through fundraising and partners.”
The theme park was extended this year with the opening of a fully accessible water park named Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
“Fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot. So, we decided to create a water park next door.”
Gordon explained that parts of the island use warm water, which helps visitors with muscular problems. Waterproof motorized wheelchairs are provided, and these run on compressed air rather than batteries. There is also an accessible river boat ride, and a splash park was added to the complex this year.
Altogether, the water park cost $17 million to create.
Three out of four visitors to the park do not have a disability, which means that the park is having precisely the effect Gordon hoped it would.
“It helps people realize that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same. I saw one girl in a wheelchair go up to another girl without special needs, and they began playing together. That was really cool.”
Gordon is regularly told by visitors that this is the first time they’ve been able to experience such attractions. Both visitors with and without disabilities can go on the rides at Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
And the best news for Gordon is that Morgan has now become a celebrity.
“When she comes here she’s a rock star! Lots of people want to talk to her and take her picture, she’s very good with it. She talks more now and most of her physical issues have been taken care of through numerous surgeries. We’re so proud of how far she has come.”
Today, when Morgan visits the theme park named after her, she’s happiest when playing on the swings and in the sand zone, but Gordon says she’s not really aware of just how much she has helped others.
Her proud father says that Morgan knows that the park is named after her, but that she doesn’t have an understanding of exactly what the park represents for people with disabilities.
“She doesn’t realise how she has dealt with things in life has made her a true inspiration.”
[Featured Image by Eric Gay/AP Images]