Texas dad Gordon Hartman was disappointed when he wasn’t able to find a theme park suitable for his 12-year-old daughter with a disability. So he decided to make one himself.
Hartman recalled a heartbreaking moment when he tried to take Morgan to a swimming pool and other kids quickly left the area when she tried to make friends with them. He thinks they didn’t know how to react to someone with a disability; Morgan has the cognitive understanding of a 5-year-old, along with a form of autism.
“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,” he said. “But there were so many times we couldn’t take her places.”
Even more heartbreaking, he began to realize after speaking to other parents that such an inclusive place that could accommodate Morgan’s special needs didn’t seem to exist. So the former property developer sold his homebuilding businesses in 2005 to set up the non-profit The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which aimed to help people with disabilities.
And in 2007, he took it a step further, taking it upon himself to build the “world’s first ultra-accessible theme park.”
“We wanted a theme park where everyone could do everything, where people with and without special needs could play,” Hartman said.
It took time and effort, but he was able to round up doctors, therapists, parents and other people with and without disabilities to consult with as he built up the theme park on a 25-acre site in San Antonio, Texas.
Finally, Morgan’s Wonderland opened in 2010. It cost $34 million to put together the special theme park, complete with an accessible Ferris wheel, carousel, adventure playground, and miniature train. Since it’s opened, more than a million guests have visited. Many with disabilities are experiencing rides like these for the first time in their lives.
Even more amazing? A third of the staff have disabilities and entrance is free to any guest who has 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,” Hartman said. “We open every year knowing we’re going to lose over $1 million and we need to recover that through fundraising and partners.”
This year, he even expanded the park to include a fully accessible water park for the summer, called Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a move which cost $15 million.
“Yesterday a man came up to me at Inspiration Island and just held my hand,” Hartman said. “He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn’t been able to play in water before.”
And as for Morgan? Now 23, the park’s inspiration is a local celeb.
“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,” Hartman said.
Meanwhile, she loves playing in the sand zone and on the swings and is talking a whole lot more than what she used to.
“Morgan knows the park is named after her, but I don’t think she understands the magnitude of what it represents and how it’s changed lives,” Hartman says. “She doesn’t realize how she has dealt with things in life has made her a true inspiration.”