The former businessman built the park after witnessing an eye-opening incident that gave him a glimpse of the many hurdles disabled individuals like his daughter face every day.
Gordon Hartman is a self-made man in every sense of the term. Starting his own landscaping business at the age of 15, the San Antonian native saved enough to begin his home-building business in 4 years and by age he 23 expanded his business empire with a land development company. Growing his company into the largest locally owned home-building and land development enterprise in San Antonio over the next 22 years, he finally retired in the early 2000s to spend more time with his autistic teen daughter Morgan who has the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old. It was then that he got an eye-opening glimpse into the many hurdles disabled individuals like his daughter face every day.
According to ABC News, Hartman and then 12-year-old Morgan were at a swimming pool during a family holiday when he saw his daughter go up to some children playing in the water. Recounting the eye-opening incident that put his life into perspective, Hartman said, "There were some other children at the other end of the pool, a couple of kids playing with a ball back and forth and you could tell Morgan wanted to play with them." Unfortunately, the kids shied away from the teen which Hartman believes may have been because they didn't know know how to react to someone with a disability.
The incident left Hartman thinking about the everyday struggles of his daughter and other disabled individuals. "Morgan is just a wonderful young lady. When you meet her you will always get a smile and she will always want to offer a hug. But there were so many times we couldn't take her places," the doting father told BBC. Although Hartman and his wife Maggie asked around for places they could take Morgan where she would feel comfortable and others wouldn't have difficulty interacting with her, they soon realized that such a place did not exist.
So, in 2007, he built it himself. Hartman brought together doctors, therapists, parents and other people with and without disabilities to build the "world's first ultra-accessible theme park." He raised $34 million, including $1 million of his own, to build the one-of-a-kind theme park the 25-acre site of a disused quarry in San Antonio, Texas. Morgan's Wonderland opened its doors to the public on April 10, 2010. "Morgan's Wonderland is a park that has been designed with special needs individuals in mind, at the beginning of the process and throughout the entire process," Hartman explained.
Morgan's Wonderland embodies the concept of inclusion in every nook and cranny. From big, wide ramps for wheelchairs to a sensory village to enjoy light, touch, and sounds, to a fully-accessible Ferris wheel, the theme park is truly one of a kind, a fact visitors regularly thank Hartman for. While every inch of the park was designed with the aim of being accessible to one and all, Hartman went a step further to embrace the idea of inclusivity. Admission is free for those with disabilities and children aged 2 and below. Moreover, visitors are provided special computer bracelets that allow them to keep track of each other while in the park. The crowd size at Morgan's Wonderland is also limited as big numbers can be overwhelming for many of these kids.
In 2017, the theme park expanded with the opening of Morgan's Inspiration Island, a fully-accessible water park. "Fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot. So we decided to create a water park next door," Hartman explained. Parts of Morgan's Inspiration Island use warm water to help visitors with muscular problems while the park also features waterproof motorized wheelchairs and an accessible riverboat ride. The water park cost an additional $17 million to build but the heartwarming stories of gratitude visitors share with him, makes it all worth it for Hartman.
"A man came up to me at Inspiration Island and just held my hand. He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn't been able to play in water before," Hartman recounted. He revealed that three out of four visitors to the park are not disabled. "It helps people realize that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same. I saw one girl in a wheelchair go up to another girl without special needs, and they began playing together. That was really cool," he said.