Human Interest

Dad builds ‘wonderland’ for his daughter with special needs

Morgan's Wonderland

Gordon Hartman loved seeing his daughter Morgan’s joy-filled spirit. But he noticed while on vacation that Morgan, who has Tatton-Brown-Rahman syndrome and is non-verbal, was excluded from playing with other children. So Hartman decided to take action and built a theme park — one that is fully accessible and inclusive for people with disabilities.

Morgan’s Wonderland opened in San Antonio, Texas, in 2010, becoming the world’s first theme park designed specifically for people with special needs. The completely wheelchair-accessible park boasts more than 25 elements such as rides, playgrounds, and other colorful attractions, and anyone with a disability is admitted free of charge.

Hartman spoke to CBS News about the experience, and explained why Morgan’s Wonderland is so special.

“In 2006, we were on a family vacation where I watched Morgan not be able to participate in a pool activity with three other children, and it was simply because she was not able to be verbal,” he said. “It almost puts a lump in your throat because it gives you a sad feeling that, all Morgan wanted was to participate. She just wanted to play.”

Hartman, a builder, worked with other experts to build the theme park, and stressed that it isn’t just for people with disabilities; it’s meant for everyone. Approximately 9% of their guests have special needs, while the rest are able-bodied. “That’s the beauty of this place, is that it’s an opportunity for everyone to truly enjoy playing together,” he said. “But also, no matter what their condition may be, that’s not a question anymore.”

Everything in the park, from zip lines to the water park, is fully accessible to everyone. “We have a wheelchair valet,” Hartman explained. “You go from your wheelchair to a wheelchair that has been specially built to the size that you need and if you’re in a battery-operated wheelchair, we actually give you a nomadic wheelchair, which works off compressed air. It works underwater.”

People have visited from around the world. “I met a couple from Mexico City,” Hartman recalled. “And they had never had a chance to, because of their special needs, ever a chance to play in water together. They heard about it, they came here. They cried with me and talked to me about how this was the most wonderful opportunity they ever had.”

Richard Pretlow, president of Morgan’s Wonderland, spoke fondly about his first time riding a roller coaster — and said it’s an experience everyone deserves to have. “That’s something I won’t forget,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. “When I think about what we do here, our job is fun. Our job is to create memories for folks. Because for some people, this is their vacation. Not everybody can afford to go to Disney. Not everybody can afford to go to Universal. So we create an affordable experience for our friends with special needs.”

Pretlow, an architect, previously worked with Six Flags and Sea World before moving on to Morgan’s Wonderland and said he enjoys the challenge of making sure every ride is fully accessible to everybody.

“Our carousel, for example. We have two carriages on that ride where one of our friends who is using a wheelchair can simply roll onto that platform. On a traditional carousel, that platform may not go up and down, as some of the horses on the carousel would do, but on our carousel, that carriage does go up and down. It gives that rider in a wheelchair the same experience that someone who is sitting on one of the horses might get,” he said.

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“We also think about the sensory of it. On our carousel, for example, we have some extra insulation that blocks a lot of the sounds that those rides make. We make sure that the lighting is not too intense; we don’t have flashers or strobes. That’s how we deliver on that ultra-accessibility. It’s not just about our friends in wheelchairs. It’s not just about our folks who have sensory issues. We’re truly a place for everybody to enjoy themselves. You all can play together and have a good time together, rather than, ‘Oh, my friend in a wheelchair over here has to take a separate entrance.'”

Hartman, who is still very involved with the park’s operations, said this mindset makes a big difference. “[F]or too long, I think, individuals had to watch and say, ‘I wish I could,'” he said. “Here at Morgan’s Wonderland and all the different Morgan’s venues, you don’t watch. You participate.”

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