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."