Imagine a theme park where a family of four could get in for fifteen dollars – for the entire day. Imagine arriving by public transportation or enjoying free parking right outside the park’s entrance. Imagine bringing your own food and drinks through the gate, rather than paying extortionist prices for less healthy options. Imagine never waiting longer than ten or fifteen minutes to board a ride, and never worrying about losing a child in the crowd. Imagine a place where people of all levels of physical and cognitive ability are welcome and even celebrated.
Open your eyes. You’re at Morgan’s Wonderland.
If it sounds like a dream come true, that’s because it is.
In 2005, Gordon Hartman, a San Antonio philanthropist and father of a child with autism spectrum disorder, sold Gordon Hartman Homes, a building empire he had worked for years to assemble. After the sale, he began spending extra time with his daughter, Morgan. While shuttling her to classmates’ social events, he noticed how often kids with cognitive delays or physical limitations, like Morgan’s, ended up on the sidelines.
“It just bothered me,” he remembers, “It didn’t seem fair.”
Then, on a family vacation, Mr. Hartman watched Morgan struggle with the social niceties of entering into play with a group of mainstream children at the hotel swimming pool. Morgan wanted to play, and the kids seemed welcoming, but neither knew how to communicate with the other.
At that moment, the seed of an idea took root in Mr. Hartman’s imagination. Why can’t they play together? he mused. He began to envision someplace where people of varying abilities could play together, on a level field. Finding nothing in his online research, he decided to put his unique blend of talents as a father, builder and businessman to work and create a place himself.
Mr. Hartman knew from personal experience that raising a child with special needs costs about three times as much as raising a child without disabilities, putting the average family of a special needs child under considerable financial strain. While some major theme parks have become more sensitive to special needs, their cost can be prohibitive for these families. So form the beginning, Mr. Hartman decided that his special place, this place to play, needed to dissolve the money barrier as well.
In sharing his growing vision with friends in the San Antonio community, Mr. Hartman found his excitement contagious. Checkbooks opened, volunteering hands raised, and in October 2008, the former Longhorn Quarry saw its site give way to the excavators that would create space for the kind of amusement park the world had never seen before.
From the beginning, Morgan Hartman’s namesake has enjoyed a peculiar degree of blessing. Following his well-honed business instincts, Mr. Hartman hired staff whom he trusted – and found many who shared his enthusiasm for what this place could be. One such person was Peter Albarian, a local high school teacher who had years of experience at another theme park. One night, he saw a local news piece about the genesis of Morgan’s Wonderland. Inspired by Mr. Hartman’s vision and the memory of close family friends with various handicaps, he left his teaching position and jumped aboard the very next day.
“All the workers we’ve hired here take extra pride in their work,” Mr. Albarian says. These workers include not only the hundreds of builders and welders, but also Hill Country sculptor Doug Roper, who crafted a 32-foot bronze image of a child’s hands releasing a butterfly to adorn the park’s entrance. The sculpture, entitled “Taking Flight,” embodies the Hartman Family Foundation’s vision of children feeling free to stretch their metaphorical wings at this place. For many, it may be the first time.
The monumental scope of what they’re doing here isn’t lost on anyone. And as he leads me on a tour through the park in mid-February, Mr. Albarian is like an expectant father: excited and nervous all at once. As the first ultra accessible park in the world, Morgan’s Wonderland has no history to rely on, no mistakes or mentors to learn from. Its primary teachers will be the families who visit the park, in numbers controlled by the online reservation system on its website (http://www.morganswonderland.com).
Take, for example, the vintage-style carousel crafted exclusively for the park by Chance Morgan Inc., the world’s most distinguished supplier of theme park rides. Scattered among the typical carousel animals are others with seat backs to support riders with low muscle tone, while still others are fully wheelchair-accessible. Outside the carousel, a stand-alone “horse” offers both photo opportunities and a chance for timid riders to experiment before tackling the full ride experience.
“How long will it take us to load the carousel? How fast should we run it? How long should each ride take? What do we do if a rider freaks out and needs to get off? How long will it take to unload?” Mr. Albarian muses aloud. “These are all questions to which we don’t yet have the answer. We won’t know until we try.”
Designed for Special Needs
Unresolved questions aside, families and caregivers can hardly miss the fact that every detail of Morgan’s Wonderland has been designed with their unique needs in mind. Visitors to the park —from families with children with Down syndrome, autism, or visual impairment, to wounded veterans or disabled parents wanting to connect with their children through play— need only bring a spirit of adventure and a modicum of patience for the first few weeks’ worth of kinks.
Incredible as it may sound, money doesn’t top the list of things to bring when visiting the park. Admission is free for any individual with special needs, and five dollars for accompanying explorers. You can pack your own picnic, or purchase light —and inexpensive— snacks at the park. Morgan’s Wonderland expects to lose money for about two years, but an adjacent state-of-the-art soccer complex will provide income that, organizers hope, will eventually make up the difference. As well, the park will hold semi-monthly Community Days for the general public.
At the front gate, pre-registered visitors will each receive a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) bracelet. Party members’ bracelets match, so that no child may leave the park without an adult with a corresponding bracelet. To prevent the panic that arises at all-too-easy separations, five kiosks dot the park. A separated visitor simply swipes his RFID bracelet and the whereabouts of every member of his party flashes upon the kiosk’s touch screen. Anyone who has ever lost a darting child for a short eternity in a public place can appreciate the peace of mind this technology affords.
When the Hartman Family Foundation and its creative team was in the brainstorming stage, they held multiple round-table discussions with doctors, therapists, caregivers, and family members – even siblings – from the special needs community. These sessions produced scores of ideas, some of which have come to fruition. At the top of everyone’s list, however, was a paramount concern for safety. The fencing, the registration process, and the RFID technology all work toward that end.
The RFID technology serves a purpose aside from security, however. A few spots in the park offer photo opportunities that become instant souvenirs when a family member swipes his bracelet and receives a free copy of the photo via email.
Once inside Morgan’s Wonderland, explorers may choose to begin with the water play area – especially if San Antonio’s typical Summer weather is in full swing (canopies provide shade and misters combat heat exhaustion throughout the park). When my own family toured the park in mid-February, my three children, none of whom qualify as special needs, enjoyed the water play area with great gusto, turning cranks, directing streams, and operating an Archimedes screw.
A group might choose to wander over to the main playground, where an exceptionally spongy layer of recycled tire material makes for soft landings. In addition to the typical full-sized and toddler swings, visitors can indulge their sense of play with both full-support and wheelchair-accessible swings. Or, they can explore the play structure, where ramps accommodate wheelchairs and slides control speed. The “Sway Fun” seesaw is fully wheelchair-accessible.
At the Adventure Ride, visitors “drive” a wheelchair-accessible car around a fixed track. This particular kind of car is brand new, but the folks at Morgan’s Wonderland are spreading the word at trade shows, hoping that other parks will begin adopting these innovations to make their rides more broadly accessible. Indeed, the view from the Adventure Ride track includes a water tower, adorned with another butterfly sculpture and the brand name “Wonderland Parks.” The plural emphasizes the hope that, while this may the first park of its kind, it will not be the last.
A “walk and roll” track circumscribes the park, where visitors may either stroll from station to station, enjoying international music selections at each stop, or ride the train. Eighty-eight lights have been laid into the path’s surface, ready to glow at night. One each year will be engraved with the names of five individuals who have made notable contributions to or within the special needs community.
Further into the heart of the park, visitors encounter the Sensory Village, an indoor attraction that facilitates pretend play. Aspiring drivers or mechanics may get behind the wheel of a cherry red BMW to try their hand at a virtual drive through the Hill Country, or design and “paint” their own cars. Shoppers may browse the aisles of the market, adding “groceries” to their carts, watching plastic lobsters spew bubbles in a tank, and making that alluring “beep” at the mock checkout counter. Equestrians can loosen tight muscles on therapeutic riding horses at the “stable,” and television fans can experiment with green-screen technology, starring in their own videos in the “KWML” TV studio.
The old quarry site provides one of the park’s major attractions: a lake. All visitors can access the “Pirate Wharf,” complete with a second playground, a remote-controlled boating area, and a place for catch-and-release fishing, thanks to the generosity of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Manually controlled water cannons aim at various kinetic sculptures around the lake. And from the wharf, one can watch the train circumnavigating the lake.
Although the size and crowd-density of Morgan’s Wonderland may be far less overwhelming than that of larger parks, the planners anticipate that meltdowns will still occur. That’s why, next to the performance amphitheater, a quiet garden offers benches and a view of the lake. This is a quiet space, protected by a memorial wall, for reflecting, reconnecting, and recharging.
This attention to detail is typical, not only of the park’s designers and builders, but also of the many volunteers currently in training to help with daily operations. Volunteers, who will constitute 60% of the park’s staff, not only make it possible for the park to run as a nonprofit by saving about $700,000 per year in labor expenses, but also serve as extra eyes and ears – noticing, for example, the need for an eye-wash station at the Sand Area.
One way for a volunteer to lend a hand would be to assist with leading games in the full-sized gymnasium. On a hot day, guests can enjoy air-conditioned rounds of basketball, kickball, or other games. Or, groups can help support Morgan’s Wonderland by renting the gym or conference room for special events.
So what does Morgan Hartman think of her namesake? Although she doesn’t fully understand the magnitude of her father’s project, Morgan lights up when she hears the park’s name and points proudly to herself. She loves the playscape, and will soon be trying out the rides.
With all of the emphasis on catering to special needs, you may be wondering what kind of appeal Morgan’s Wonderland will have for a broader audience, or the mainstream family members of special needs kids?
If my family’s experience is any indicator, anyone who knows how to play can enjoy Morgan’s Wonderland. My nine-year-old, who is not known for mincing his words and has visited larger theme parks, gave the following unprompted review:
“This place is awesome!”
Hannah Diller is the Parent:Wise Sizzle Sights columnist (although she took a break from that this month to write this article). She and her family live in Austin.