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Morgan's Wonderland Opens Water Park for Children of All Abilities

Morgan Hartman loves her family, her dog and cat, music and butterflies. Morgan is not like most teenagers, however; she was born with severe cognitive delays. Despite the challenges she’s faced in her young life, Morgan has an ebullient personality, giving hugs and smiles to everyone she meets. To her parents, Gordon and Maggie Hartman, she is an inspiration.
Several years ago while watching Morgan attempt to interact with a group of children, Gordon had the germ of an idea – why not build a park specifically for people with physical and mental challenges? Being the businessman and philanthropist he is, Hartman put the wheels in motion. In 2007 Gordon and Maggie founded the Hartman Family Foundation, kicking it off with their own $1 million contribution. They raised another $33 million in donations from the city of San Antonio, the state of Texas, charitable foundations, corporations and individuals.
In 2009 Morgan’s Wonderland became a reality when Hartman purchased an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of San Antonio. He developed 25 acres of the former Longhorn Quarry as a specially outfitted theme park for those with physical and mental challenges. A year later, Morgan’s Wonderland opened to visitors.
Hartman describes Morgan’s Wonderland as “a special place where anyone can have fun, but it was created with individuals with special needs in mind … Unfortunately, countless children and adults with special needs do not have access to facilities that can help them fully enjoy outdoor recreation. We hope Morgan’s Wonderland will begin to change that.”
To learn what was needed in the park, the Hartmans held public forums with parents and caregivers of people with disabilities and with representatives of the Wounded Warriors Program from Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
To say Morgan’s Wonderland is a happy place is putting it mildly; nothing is painted institutional gray or hospital white. The principal colors are Morgan’s favorites: reds, oranges, yellows, blues and purples with vivid butterfly logos everywhere.
Chance Morgan, the country’s largest amusement ride company, created the park’s major attractions – the Wonderland Express Train, the Old Time Carousel, the swings and the off-road adventure ride. Each ride is designed to be 100 percent wheelchair accessible. In June 2010 the park was awarded the United Cerebral Palsy Universal Accessibility Design Award.
The Wonderland Express train has wide openings, making it easier for people in wheelchairs to board. The train chugs around a man-made lake where cannons spew water and guests sail remote-control boats and fly-fish from the shore. Brightly colored chariots accommodate wheelchairs on the Old Time Carousel, and the backs of the horses, elephants and hippos are equipped with harnesses and safety seats.
Everyone loves to swing on a swing, but at Morgan’s Wonderland the swings are made so that wheelchairs can be secured onto special staging and then be pushed like regular swings. The off-road adventure dune buggies, moving along a track that traverses hills and dunes, are designed and fitted so that even guests with severely limited mobility can drive them. The back of each buggy has platforms for wheelchairs.
Made up of a life-size mechanic’s garage, general store and TV station, the Sensory Village stimulates guests’ senses using colors, lights, sounds and textures. At the Water Works, visitors can get wet playing with water that splashes out of pipes and tumbles over waterfalls.
And this summer, the Hartmans added even more fun with the addition of Inspiration Island, a $17 million water park that looks like others with five splash pads and a Riverboat Adventure ride, but has a few key differences. For starters, there are specially designed waterproof wheelchairs — available for free on a first come, first-served basis. Also, before the buckets dump water on the splash pads, a bell rings across the park to alert those with vision impairments. (A visual signal is in the works to notify those with hearing impairments.)
On entering either park, each guest is given a radio-frequency identification bracelet. Station monitors are located throughout the park, and if anyone gets separated from their group, all they have to do is scan their bracelet to get reconnected. But by summer’s end, Hartman hopes to implement an app that allows attendees to keep track of each other on their phones instead of having to go to the stations.
Both parks are a hit, logging over 1 million visitors from nearly 70 countries and all 50 states.