A Texas dad wanted to take his daughter, who has special needs, somewhere she could feel included while having fun. When Gordon Hartman realized a place like that didn’t exist, he decided to build an amusement park for her in San Antonio, Texas.
Gordon recounts watching his then-12-year-old daughter, Morgan, who is on the autism spectrum, try to play with a group of children who were swimming in a hotel pool where they were vacationing. But the kids ran away from her, likely because they didn’t know how to interact with someone with special needs.
The interaction broke Gordon’s heart and later inspired him to sell his homebuilding business to set up a nonprofit, The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which provides grants and sponsorships to local charities that serve the special-needs community.
He then worked with a team of doctors, engineers, and special needs experts to create Morgan’s Wonderland, a theme park tailored to accommodate visitors with special needs. More than one million people have visited the $34 million park since its opening in 2010. Last month, Gordon opened an adjacent waterpark, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, to the tune of $17 million.
“When [Morgan] 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 told BBC.”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.”
To make the park financially accessible for visitors, admission for individuals with disabilities is free. Tickets for adults and children older than 2 range from $11-$27. Gordon keeps admission prices low even though it means losing about $1 million per year. The park relies on donations to stay afloat.
Morgan’s Inspirational Island is the first handicap-accessible waterpark in the world. The park provides waterproof wheelchairs that run on compressed air for all visitors who need it and many of the attractions feature warm water to soothe pain or calm kids down.
About three-quarters of the park’s visitors do not have special needs, a ratio he says has the intended effect.
“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 told BBC News. “It helps people realize that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same.”