It’s summer and lots of families are headed for amusement parks, but if you have a special needs child, these places can be intimidating, frustrating, scary and inconvenient for the whole family.
Gordon Hartman, a San Antonio businessman, knows what that’s like.
His daughter, 16-year-old Morgan, has had numerous extensive surgeries, including operations on her spine and lung, and has “severe cognitive problems,” he said in a phone interview. Still, “she’s a very positive young lady. She wakes up with a smile on her face. What gets her through is her attitude. She’s a big inspiration.”
Taking Morgan to a regular amusement park, though, just doesn’t work. So like a good father and a man who is used to solving problems, Hartman decided that his daughter and others like her should have a park that allows them to fully participate.
In April, Morgan’s Wonderland opened in San Antonio — “the world’s first ultra-accessible family fun park specifically designed for individuals with special needs,” Hartman said. It is totally wheelchair-accessible, features more than 25 elements and attractions including rides, playgrounds, gardens, an eight-acre fishing lake, an 18,000-square-foot special-events center, a 575-seat amphitheater, a picnic area and rest areas throughout the park. (The swings and train are Morgan’s favorites.)
Construction on the $33 million, 25-acre park took barely a year, but the planning began about four years ago, and Hartman’s approach was unconventional.
“We wanted people who were aware of the need but had never designed a park before,” he said. “We had a public forum. We just asked the parents, doctors and therapists, ‘If you could build a park, how would you do it?’”
What they got was a really fun place with rides, playscapes, carousels and water activities that accommodate wheelchairs — no barriers for anyone.
“We even had a child with no limbs ride on the carousel the other day,” Hartman said. “You can ride the carousel without getting out of the wheelchair. This park is about everybody, but we put special-needs persons first.
When you walk in, he added, “it doesn’t look different.” And although the park is certified for up to 5,000 people, there are never more than 1,500 there at a time. This is accomplished with an online registration system which assures that there will be enough people to help.
“We have a trained staff and loads of volunteers,” Hartman explained.
The price of admission is family-friendly, too.
The special needs person (of any age) is free and is given a locator microchip to wear on the wrist. The accompanying person is $5, and general admission is $15.
Jamie Kennedy of San Antonio says her daughter, Katie, a 10-year-old with Down’s syndrome, loves Morgan’s Wonderland.
“Our Katie loved the carousel,” she said. “It was great because it wasn’t crowded and she could just stay on as long as she wanted to. They do a great job of monitoring how many kids are there so there aren’t excessive lines. Special-needs children find it extremely hard to wait in line. And there’s lots of space so they don’t feel crowded. If the kids are getting a little too much stimulation, you can escape to the beautiful butterfly garden.”
And unlike many amusement parks that forbid bringing in food, Morgan’s Wonderland encourages families to bring picnics, important because these kids often need special diets.
“We feel blessed because a lot of people came together to build this park quickly,” Hartman said. “There is a real thirst for parks like this. It is more popular than we ever thought. There is nothing like it in the world.”
For more information, visit www.morganswonderland.com.
E’Louise Ondash is a veteran, award-winning journalist who was an investigative reporter, feature writer and columnist for the Times Advocate and the North County Times. She has written travel features for The Coast News since 2003.