Hannah Whisenant / Rivard Report
“Where Everyone Can Play”
That’s been the motto of Morgan’s Wonderland since we opened in 2010 in what once was a rock quarry. Our unique theme park has welcomed more than 1.3 million guests from all 50 states and 70 other countries, and last year, we added another reason to visit beautiful and historic San Antonio – Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an extremely accessible splash park where guests of all ages and abilities can have fun together.
Like Morgan’s Wonderland, Morgan’s Inspiration Island is not a special-needs park; it’s a park of inclusion. Both were designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment. In addition, nonprofit Morgan’s Wonderland admits anyone with a physical or cognitive special need free of charge, and the same policy is in effect at Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
Our goal is to provide a great guest experience in an inclusive, safe, comfortable, not-overly-crowded environment. When Morgan’s Wonderland opened, we didn’t know what to expect in terms of acceptance and attendance, but the park’s popularity has grown tremendously and encouraged us to add Morgan’s Inspiration Island. Now, we have two attractions where everyone – regardless of ability or age – can play in an environment without physical or economic barriers.
For people who don’t have special needs, Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island are eye-openers. They can readily see the challenges faced by individuals with physical or cognitive disabilities, gain a greater understanding of those challenges, and often exhibit a willingness to help. This is particularly true of younger children, who are like sponges, eager to become educated and empathetic about their newfound, special-needs friends.
The “culture of inclusiveness” that went into the creation of Morgan’s Wonderland is certainly alive at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which includes five major splash pads and the wheelchair-accessible River Boat Adventure ride. Both parks were inspired by my 24-year-old daughter with special needs, Morgan, who has been the catalyst for every project of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation since 2005 to help the special-needs community.
Ironically, it was during vacation at a hotel swimming pool where Morgan’s Wonderland, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, and our other efforts to help those with special needs began. Morgan wanted to play with kids tossing a ball at the other end of the pool, but when she approached them, they abruptly took their ball and vanished. I’ll never forget the look of anguish and dismay on Morgan’s face, so I decided there had to be a way to bridge the gap of misunderstanding about people with special needs. That incident was the tipping point for my wife, Maggie, and me to create Morgan’s Wonderland and ultimately Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
To create Morgan’s Inspiration Island, we did the same thing we did in envisioning Morgan’s Wonderland; we pulled together a team of passionate people wanting to make a difference. It included doctors, therapists, special-ed teachers, caregivers, and parents of special-needs children, who brainstormed what would make the new park especially easy to negotiate. We even trademarked the description: ultra-accessible™. This means anyone with a cognitive or physical disability can do just as much and have just as much fun as individuals without special needs in a barrier-free, non-judgmental oasis of inclusion.
Waterproof wheelchairs top the list of adaptations making Morgan’s Inspiration Island easy to enjoy for children and adults with special needs. We sponsored research by the University of Pittsburgh to develop a revolutionary waterproof wheelchair powered by compressed air. Guests in expensive battery-powered wheelchairs with electronic components can’t afford to get them wet, but our waterproof wheelchairs allow them to splash and play with everyone.
Other specialized facilities include spacious changing rooms – some with electric lifts and adjustable changing tables – that make the transfer from personal wheelchair to waterproof wheelchair easy, electronic wristbands so parents can easily ascertain the whereabouts of their children at a Location Station or on their smartphone, and warmed water at one of the splash pads for guests who can’t tolerate cool water even on hot summer days. Certain medical conditions cause muscle pain or contraction when an individual is subjected to non-heated water.
Planning for Morgan’s Inspiration Island began after a prolonged drought prompted many Morgan’s Wonderland guests to request something cool and refreshing, especially when afternoon temperatures rose to the century mark. After initial brainstorming for a splash park, we began collaborating with water park consultants from Texas, Arizona, Florida, and Canada. Groundbreaking ceremonies for Morgan’s Inspiration Island occurred in November 2015, construction began in January 2016, and guests started splashing on June 17, 2017.
We’re grateful that our efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. For instance, the World Waterpark Association bestowed its Leading Edge Award upon Morgan’s Inspiration Island, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America presented its 2018 Barrier-Free America Award to both our splash park and theme park. But in my view, we’ve got so much more to do.
Already we’ve received queries from around the world about Morgan’s Inspiration Island as well as renewed interest in Morgan’s Wonderland. We’re more than willing to share lessons learned with others in the fervent hope they will work to improve the lives of people with special needs in their midst. Our ultimate goal is to focus more attention on difficulties that confront the special-needs community and opportunities to solve those problems.
All in all, what we’re doing revolves around building self-esteem. It’s so gratifying to see individuals with special needs – like my daughter Morgan – come to Morgan’s Inspiration Island and do much more than they thought they could do. I believe such successes lead to greater confidence and more fulfilling lives. Consider our symbol, the butterfly, which appears to be fragile, yet it has the strength and determination to spread its wings and rise to new heights.
Isn’t a soaring spirit what all of us desire?