Gordon Hartman, 49, will never forget the look on his child's face. It was 2006, and his wife, Maggie, and their then 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, were enjoying a family vacation off Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Late one afternoon Gordon took Morgan for a swim. The pool was nearly empty—just a few other tweens splashing and laughing. Morgan, who has severe cognitive delays and physical disabilities, inched her way toward the group, clearly wanting to join in. "I could tell these were nice kids, but Morgan was different from them, and they didn't know what to do," Gordon says. Fighting the urge to intervene, he watched as the group left the pool. Then he looked at his daughter's face, which was full of heartbreak. "Right then I decided I had to figure out a way for all kids, of all abilities, to learn to play together," he says.
His idea: an all-inclusive theme park that would be fully accessible for guests of all physical and cognitive abilities. Located in an old quarry in northeast San Antonio, Morgan's Wonderland—named, of course, after Gordon's daughter—features 25 acres of rides and attractions. There is a carousel that allows people in wheelchairs to float up and down, an off-road adventure that lets them sit in the same vehicle as their friends and family, and a Sensory Village free of bright lights and loud noises in order not to overwhelm guests with autism or other cognitive challenges. It's a place where a 21-year-old with cognitive delays can play in the large wheelchair-accessible sandbox next to her 10-year-old cousin while a wounded soldier from nearby Brooke Army Medical Center laughs on the slides with his kids.
A former home builder, Gordon was able to make Morgan's Wonderland happen in part because he had connections to local architects and building professionals. Also, as the parent of a special-needs child, he had access to doctors, specialists and other parents of similarly challenged children. Mostly, though, he had determination—and time and money. (He sold his company and retired seven years ago.) Since there weren't any other theme parks like Morgan's Wonderland, Gordon had to start from scratch and custom create every aspect of the park. So in early 2007, 400 people came together—mostly other special-needs parents, educators and medical experts—to brainstorm what they would like to see in Morgan's Wonderland.
The park evolved quite a bit from that first meeting—the original plans were updated about 60 times—but there was one idea that was always non-negotiable: The park would be free for those with special needs and very low cost for their families and friends. (General admission is $15 for adults and $10 for kids, seniors and military members.) "I am blessed," Gordon says. "Morgan's therapies and surgeries are very expensive, and I can afford it. But the majority of special-needs parents cannot. Fun falls out of the picture in these families because they don't have extra money after paying for necessities like doctors and wheelchairs.
It's not just donations that keep the admission price so low, although those certainly help. Funding for Morgan's Wonderland, which cost $34 million to build, brings the entire town together. "When I was thinking about Morgan's Wonderland, I realized that if I had nothing to tie it to the local community then it was just a park," he says. "It would almost be forgotten. I needed to do something big that would keep it in people's minds."
The solution was soccer. Not only is the sport extremely popular in San Antonio, but the quarry where Morgan's Wonderland is located has an underground water supply that could provide an inexpensive way to keep fields green in hot, dry Texas. Soccer for a Cause, as Gordon calls it, is the marriage of Morgan's Wonderland and the adjacent 13-field South Texas Area Regional (STAR) Soccer Complex, which was built using county bonds and private donations. Proceeds from STAR help subsidize free entry to the park for those with special needs.
This year Gordon founded the San Antonio Scorpions, a professional soccer team that funnels its profits into the amusement park. "As far as I know, this is the first professional sports team created to fund a nonprofit," Gordon says. The Scorpions, a member of the North American Soccer League, played their first home game in front of a sold-out crowd.
Since opening in April 2010, Morgan's Wonderland has touched lives in ways Gordon couldn't have imagined that afternoon at the pool. "Before the park, I had to sit back and watch everyone else play," says 18-year-old Miguel Castro of San Antonio, who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair. He celebrated his 17th birthday party at the park. "If I had to pick a favorite ride, it would be the swings. I hadn't been on one since I was 2 or 3 years old, and didn't really remember what it felt like," says Miguel. "Now I can go on them whenever we visit, and have fun like everyone else. It means everything to me."
Gordon founded Monarch Academy last year, a school next to Morgan's Wonderland for kids ages 12 through 24 with special needs. "If Morgan didn't have a school like this, she would probably get lost in the system," Gordon says. "I don't want that to happen to these kids." Next up is adding a fully accessible water park. And Morgan's Wonderland will play a starring role on an upcoming special episode of ABC's Extreme Makeover: Home Edition as the official builder of a 4,000-square-foot home for a local soldier badly injured in a roadside bombing in Iraq. It marks the first time the show has contracted with a nonprofit to be the home builder.
Despite all the activity, the best part of this entire ride has never changed for Gordon. "When Morgan goes to the park, she doesn't fully understand that it's named for her. She plays with kids whom she might never have played with, and she smiles and has a great time," he says. "She's included, and that's what it was all about."
To learn hours of operation or to make a donation, visit morganswonderland.com.
Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.