Imagine seeing your child struggling or completely unable to enjoy normal recreational activities. Water parks, merry-go-rounds, theme parks - all childhood activities that unfortunately, many kids don’t not get to experience.
Gordon Hartman couldn’t find an amusement park that would accommodate his daughter, a person with special needs. So he did one any father would do. Using the money from the sale of his successful homebuilding business, he created one. Hartman built a completely accessible amusement park for kids with special needs in San Antonio, Texas called Morgan’s Wonderland. And this massive, “ultra-accessible” amusement park has all of us wanting to buy tickets.
“If you’re in a wheelchair and you go to a park, you look at a lot of rides and you just look at them. You don’t ever think about getting on them.”
Leah is a young woman with Down syndrome, a genetic disorder which causes intellectual disabilities and physical developmental delays. For Leah’s family, taking her to an amusement park was likely a far-fetched dream. Leah is sensitive to large crowds, loud music, and bright lights.
Karen Meyer, Leah's Mom
“Elementary school was one of the hardest times for Leah. She wanted to play with friends but it was difficult. That’s devastating when you realize that your child knows they’re different.
Gordon Hartman is able to understand these sort of hurdles, as his daughter, Morgan, also has special needs. But Harmtan recognized that her disability shouldn’t hold her back from living a full life with the rest of her family and friends.
Building a Completely Inclusive & Handicap Accessible Park
Gordon Hartman will emphasize again and again - this is not an amusement park for kids with special needs. This is an amusement park for everyone.
“We did not want to build a special needs park. We wanted to build a park that was for everyone to enjoy. It’s a park of inclusion.”
“We had to go to manufacturers and say ‘We need you to make these few changes.’ And they’re looking at us, like ‘Well, why? No one has ever asked us to this.’ And I said, ‘Well, I know, we’re trying to do something different.’”
Nearly every component of Morgan’s Wonderland is customized. Take your standard merry-go-round - many children with physical or mental disabilities are not able to enjoy this ride. However the merry-go-round at Morgan’s Wonderland features a wheelchair ramp with extra wide doors for entry. The car - which is normally a static feature on a carousel - goes up and down like the rest of the animals. That way, every person is enjoying the same experience, together.
The park also has no fluorescent lighting, no latex, no blinking lights, and no loud music.
Perhaps one of the most impressive components of Morgan’s Wonderland is the water park. “We had the opportunity to work with the University of Pittsburgh to come up with a pneumatic chair so that anyone who came to Morgan’s Inspiration Island would be able to work with a chair that was propelled by air versus batteries. Which allowed it to get fully wet and enjoy the park 100%.” There is even an area of the water park that features warm water.
More Than an Amusement Park
Leah was able to enjoy Morgan’s Wonderland, first as an attendee, and now as an employee. One third of the park’s employees are people with special needs. Leah’s mother says that through her time at Morgan’s Wonderland, she continues to see her daughter grow.
Karen Meyer, Leah's Mom
“It’s really changed how their future will be. Because they don’t see differences in people. They just see a heart.”
Morgan’s Wonderland is more than just a park or a place for those with disabilities. Morgan’s Wonderland shows us that it’s not differences that divide us. Perhaps loud music, flashing lights, and uncomfortable situations make those differences feel larger than they truly are.
And when you lift those distractions, you open the opportunity for every person to be everything they were created to be.
Gordon Hartman is just one of the impressive people leading the charge for more inclusivity. And to develop his waterproof wheelchair, he worked with another Freethink subject, Dr. Rory Cooper. Watch Rory Cooper's Superhuman episode, the Robotic Wheelchair Revolution, to see more on how Dr. Cooper is chaining lives for people with disabilities.