Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio offers 25 Ultra-Accessible attractions, sprawled across a 25-acre oasis of inclusion, from a wheelchair-accessible Ferris wheel to catch-and-release fishing. It is the first theme park created for individuals with special needs and their families in the world.
Guided by its mission of inclusion, the park strives to bring together guests of all ages and all abilities through the power of inclusive play.
Gordon Hartman, CEO and founder of Morgan’s Wonderland, along with Maggie, his wife, created the park for their daughter, Morgan, who was born with profound physical and cognitive challenges, and for children and adults like her.
Hartman, who had sold his real estate development company, worked as the general contractor for the amusement park and oversaw the design, engineering, architecture and construction. One-third of the employees at Morgan’s Wonderland and its expansion themselves have special needs.
New developments at Morgan’s Wonderland
Hartman last spoke to blooloop in 2017, when the Ultra-Accessible theme park opened its expansion, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which was named on the 2018 “World’s Greatest Places” list by TIME Magazine. He explained how a simple dream of inclusion for his daughter lead to this one-of-a-kind theme park which has been designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment.
Bringing blooloop up-to-date, he spoke about new initiatives, including a new multi-assistance centre, and a $4m Ultra-Accessible sports complex for athletes with various abilities, Morgan’s Wonderland Sports.
“As you know, we opened up Morgan’s Wonderland in 2010. We had incredible success with the first Ultra-Accessible, fully inclusive amusement park of its type in the world where children and adults could come together and play,” he begins:
“Many places allow for a certain percentage of the population to enjoy themselves, but not a hundred percent of the population. We felt that there needed to be a change. So in 2017, we added Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which is a water park with the same concept as Morgan’s Wonderland; we simply added water.”
Catering for all
Of course, it wasn’t so simple in practice:
“There were a lot of factors that had to be taken into account. We wanted to ensure that it’s Ultra-Accessible and fully inclusive. So we had to make sure the water temperature was at a certain level. We had to make sure that we had wheelchairs that can accommodate chlorinated water.”
“If someone were to come in a battery-operated wheelchair, and they want to be able to stay independent, we had to ensure that they can. So, we developed the world’s only pneumatic wheelchair that works totally off compressed air. This allows people to enjoy themselves within the waterpark, without having to use their wheelchair. These are the type of additional things that we’ve done going from 2017 forward.”
Morgan’s Wonderland & COVID-19
Last year, Hartman made the difficult decision not to open Morgan’s Wonderland:
“It was a difficult decision, but it was the right decision. We were open for 11 days. Then, on the 11th day, around the middle of March, we made the decision. We know that some of the people who come to Morgan’s Wonderland have situations medically that mean COVID would be very dangerous for them. Instead of taking a chance or trying to figure out how to manoeuvre this thing, we had to say, ‘Let’s not play with this: let’s simply shut down.’”
Even while doing this, the Morgan’s Wonderland team were working to ensure they would still be there as a resource for the special needs community.
“We started doing things virtually,” he says. “We started doing parades where we visited neighbourhoods where we knew people were in their homes. Joy, our butterfly-mascot, did hundreds of visits to homes under a lot of precautionary measures to ensure that people still knew that Morgan’s Wonderland was relevant and out there.”
To many people, it was a serious blow that Morgan’s Wonderland was not open.
“We had some people who would come just to look at the park. One, in particular, made sure his grandpa brought him every day to make sure that Morgan’s Wonderland was still there. That’s the importance of what we do, and really puts an emphasis on why we do what we do.”
Spreading the message of accessiblity
Since it opened in 2010, elements of Morgan’s Wonderland have been emulated.
“To create something like this costs a lot of money,” Hartman says. “The investment in Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island is more than $50 million. What has happened that is very positive is that people from all over the United States and even outside the United States have visited us. They ask, ‘how can we adjust what we have to make our facility more accessible?'”
“There have been a lot of changes made to rides, along the lines of the boat ride we have at Inspiration Island, and the way our carousel and off-road adventure ride is built. People have implemented that.
“Are there other Morgan’s Wonderlands elsewhere? No, but there are pieces of what exists in Morgan’s Wonderland, to allow for more people to be able to enjoy what we offer. That has happened literally all over the world.”
The inspiration behind Morgan’s Wonderland
Once the park re-opened, people flooded back:
“We had incredible numbers of people, much higher than what we had seen in the past. The unfortunate thing is that’s been short-lived, because of what’s happening at the moment with COVID. And in September, of course, we closed again.”
Morgan’s Wonderland is a non-profit, and Hartman has always worked hard to make it affordable as well as accessible. He comments:
“The inspiration behind all this is Morgan, our daughter, who is going to be 28 next month. She’s an incredible young lady, even though she is maybe at the cognitive level of a three or four-year-old, and has had numerous has numerous physical issues. She has a spirit beyond anything you could ever imagine. She always has a smile on her face and wants to give you a hug.
“Morgan is one of the lucky ones.”
Low cost offer
Hartman was able to afford to help Morgan and meet all her additional needs, and to ensure she always had access to doctors and treatments:
“That’s an exception to the rule. So when we got involved in doing what we have been doing for the past 15 years, I quickly noticed that many caregivers and families simply could not afford to go to a movie, couldn’t afford to do anything, because of all the costs that they to deal with through therapies and doctors and so on.”
“So when we opened Morgan’s Wonderland, we made a commitment that anyone who had a special need could come into the park at no cost. And that we would keep the cost of anyone who accompanied them very low. People can also bring their own food.”
Additionally, the cost of the food on offer in the park is extremely low. Hartman explains:
“We’re not about making money. We’re about offering a service; that is critical to us. We lose money every time we open the doors. Luckily people have been good to us, allowing us to cover our expenses for most years.”
What we do allows for a hundred percent of the population to enjoy things alongside people who don’t have special needs
“People do recognise the importance of what we do. They recognise that what we do allows for a hundred percent of the population to enjoy things alongside people who don’t have special needs. And they’ve been very involved in helping us be able to cover the financial deficit that arises from all the things that we do and that we don’t charge for.
“When you’re running an operation as big as ours, there is a large loss involved. But we’re not going to change. We will always be free for our friends with special needs.”
Morgan’s Wonderland Sports
Morgan’s Wonderland currently has three new initiatives.
“Two of them have been completed; one which is under construction right now,” Hartman says. “About four years ago, after we finished Morgan’s Inspiration Island, we said, ‘Okay, what’s the next thing we’re going to do?’ We don’t like to let the grass grow under our feet. We came up with three things: a sports facility, a camp, and a multi-assistance centre.”
Morgan’s Wonderland Sports, an Ultra-Accessible $3 million complex will offer fitness and competition for athletes with different abilities:
“The idea behind that is that many times children and adults who want to play volleyball, basketball football, soccer, hockey, pickleball, tennis, are not given that opportunity because the of fact that the facility doesn’t allow them to do that.
“If you’re in a wheelchair it’s kind of hard to go on a baseball field. The way we have developed this facility is that if you’re in a wheelchair, or you’re in a walker, or you are vision or hearing impaired, you can have fun playing any of the games I just mentioned alongside a friend of yours, or within a team, whatever the case may be.
“As we built it, we started working with the Special Olympics, Texas. This has its offices now at the facility because we have the Texas Special Olympics here in San Antonio every year now. We will use that facility for the upcoming Special Olympics.”
Opening up opportunities
The Special Olympics Texas 2021 Summer Games will be held at Morgan’s Wonderland for the second year in a row, from 19 – 22 September.
“We’re eager to see the athletes return to compete and to enjoy Morgan’s Wonderland and our new Morgan’s Wonderland Sports complex,” Hartman says:
“The important thing about this facility is that it opens up opportunities. While there are places to play in water, there really was no fully inclusive place to play sports for those with special needs. There are wonderful things out there that offer one sport or another. But we wanted to build a facility that could have a combination of numerous different sports. And so that’s what Morgan’s Wonderland Sports is all about.”
Morgan’s Wonderland Camp
The next initiative, completed recently, is Morgan’s Wonderland Camp. This is an Ultra-Accessible camp for all ages and abilities. It has 550 beds and an emphasis on giving people with physical and developmental disabilities an opportunity to enjoy summer camp-type activities alongside guests without special needs.
“We’ve had to ease into it slowly because of COVID. It’s an incredible facility. We have a 30,000 square foot welcome centre, and a 5,000 square foot medical facility because we want to allow those with the most acute special needs to join us in a camping experience. We have people who are on breathing apparatus and on oxygen, people who are very fragile, who can still camp with us alongside their friends.
“It includes a library. It includes an arts and crafts facility, a sports facility, five different pool opportunities, a lazy river, a bike area, horses, a nature centre. I could go on and on. We have a challenge course that can take someone who’s in a wheelchair or someone who has full ability to do everything physically. It includes a challenge wall, where someone can be 22 feet in their wheelchair above the ground.”
Ultra-Accessible is another level
“Someone who may be totally blind can go 22 feet above the ground and enjoy this opportunity that they previously thought impossible,” continues Hartman. “We also have a zip line that will allow someone on oxygen, or who may have any type of impairment from a special needs perspective, to ride either alongside or by themselves, 11 storeys high.
“These are the kind of things that we have produced that are a little bit outside the box. They have minor changes here and there to allow not just 85% or 88% of the population but 100% to enjoy these experiences. It’s fully inclusive and Ultra-Accessible.”
“ADA is what I would call the ground level of ensuring those with special needs have certain opportunities,” he explains. ADA refers to accessibility standards issued under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA):
“Ultra-Accessible means that we take it to another level. ADA says your pitch cannot exceed 8%. We don’t do anything over 5%. That’s because our research and observation show that if you’re in a wheelchair for a long distance, at 8%, it wears you out at a certain point. 5% is much easier to manoeuvre. These are the adjustments to make it Ultra-Accessible.”
The MAC at Morgan’s Wonderland
In terms of the third new venue, he says:
“We are now getting into the medical, therapeutic and social determinants of health issues. We are raising the walls of a new 165,000 square foot facility, which will be called The MAC (Multi-Assistance Centre) at Morgan’s Wonderland.”
The MAC at Morgan’s Wonderland is a one-stop-shop model. It provides medical and non-medical services for individuals with special needs of all ages in one setting and platform.
“It allows for those who have a special need to come in and be evaluated under a programme that we have set up where they give their story once as to what their issues are, and we figure out how, medically, they need to be handled.
“They may already have doctors, and that’s fine. And then we join them in with any therapeutic activities that they need, plus social determinants of health. These are small things, but of great importance. One is transportation. Often, people who need assistance simply can’t get from point A to point B, so they don’t get anything done.
“Another example is the legal work that is often necessary for guardianships and so on. It can be forgotten or not done because people can’t afford it. We’re going to have those opportunities at the Multi Assistance centre.”
A one-stop solution
Individuals with special needs frequently get fragmented, uncoordinated health and social services spread over a wide geographic area, with little contact between the different elements, and little cohesion, often leaving individuals overwhelmed.
The MAC is a one-stop solution providing medical and non-medical services for those of all ages with special needs, in one setting and platform. The services will be integrated, coordinated and provided through an innovative care model called The MAC at Morgan’s Wonderland Care Model.
“So we’re blending everything in with over 30 different partners in one building that’s under 65,000 square feet. We’re electronically monitoring every activity of the person. And we expect that we can do about 10,000 people consistently through this facility. Something like this has never been done before. It’s a whole new approach.”
Explaining why he decided such a resource was necessary, he says:
“To use the example of Morgan, Morgan has navigators. Her navigators are called Mom and Dad. When Morgan has an issue, we call people. We call her doctors, we call her therapists, we call whoever we need – we have pretty good access to those, and we can afford to pay them.
“We are an exception to the rule. What we are doing here is ensuring people will have the same opportunities that Morgan has. Why should Morgan have opportunities that others can’t access because of her parents’ situation? That’s what we’re trying to change.”
“We’re making an investment in this building and platform to be able to start a whole new approach. It is one we think really can be replicated, from an overall perspective going forward, for the purposes of assisting our friends with special needs.”
Comparisons have been drawn with the early stages of the Mayo Clinic. This is an American nonprofit academic medical centre based in several locations and focused on integrated patient care, education, and research.
“We will open the facility in the summer of next year. It will start off with 54 navigators in place, and by 2024 will be handling 10,000 people’s situations. If someone doesn’t make an appointment, the system will let us know they didn’t make the appointment. There will be a follow-through as to why they didn’t make it.”
Access to transport will no longer be a barrier:
“There is an assumption everybody’s got a car, which is not the case. We will have transportation to be able to get from point A to point B, so they can make those appointments.”
There will also be an ambulatory surgical centre at The MAC:
“We will offer coordinated sedation. Many children and adults with special needs do not get proper teeth cleaning. At the age of 20 or 30, their teeth start to have problems. They have never had any dental work done because they can’t sit still, and most dentists can’t work on someone unless they’re still.
“We will offer sedation for that purpose, and will also arrange for them to have their eyes checked in the same session, and their hearing. Then there is the drawing of blood. I hear from caregivers and parents all the time, ‘My child won’t let me draw blood.’ This means certain studies to measure their situation can’t be done.”
Coordinated sedation provides the answer:
“Because we will have all the doctors in one place, tests can be coordinated. Doing four or five procedures at once saves money, it saves time, it saves worries, it saves stress. It’s not that difficult to do this. It just takes coordination. For us, it’s a way to be able to ensure that we can do as much as we can for our friends with special needs. We do that by offering a system like this that otherwise simply does not exist, which is unfortunate.”
Changing the culture
“We’re just getting started. There are a lot of other things that need to be done. We need to take it to the next level. And that will start in 2023, once we have The MAC open. This movie is just at its beginning. There’s going to be a whole lot more before we say, ‘Hey, we’ve done everything we can do.’
“We want to do it in a fashion that we refer to as MWQ: Morgan’s Wonderland Quality.”
He stresses that he and his wife are not doing anything they see as extraordinary:
“We’re not doing anything magical. It’s just the small things mean big things to those who do not have what the rest of us take for granted. It’s also about changing the culture because what started all of this was that Morgan, as a child, was rejected. That gave me the idea in the very beginning that I wanted to take action. Because all Morgan wanted was to be involved.
“We want all of our friends with special needs to be involved and to be taken care of. That is why we’re doing what we do.”