American Heart: Creating a Theme Park for Those With Special Needs

A man creates a place of wonder for his own special needs daughter and others.

March 9, 2010, 1:26 PM

March 9, 2010— -- A boy's first ride on a carousel. A 57-year-old woman's first time on a swing. A no-holds-barred adventure in the water. These are simple joys that for so many people with special needs were out of reach, until a place called Morgan's Wonderland came around.

Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio, the first large theme park created for people with special needs, was created by Gordon Hartman, 46, a former San Antonio real estate developer who said his daughter Morgan was his inspiration.

"Morgan has really taught me that there's more to life in many ways than what I saw before, being so busy as a business man," Hartman said.

Hartman's 16-year-old daughter Morgan suffers from severe cognitive delay. A few years ago, Hartman sold his business and began spending more time with Morgan and her friends, he said.

One day, while he and Morgan were in a swimming pool, Hartman said he had a realization that helped put his life into perspective.

"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," Hartman said.

But because of her inability to communicate properly, Morgan and the kids were left on opposite sides of the pool. So Hartman decided to make sure there was a place where couldn't, shouldn't or can't were not a part of the vocabulary.

He raised $30 million, including $1 million of his own, to build Morgan's Wonderland, which is scheduled to officially open on April 10 but has already been open to some visitors.

Taking Special Care to Design a Park for Special Needs

"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 said.

The concept of inclusion goes far beyond the design of the park. Admission is free for those with disabilities, and only costs $5 for friends and family.

Some of the features of the park's layout are easy to understand: big, wide ramps for wheelchairs and a sensory village to enjoy light, touch and sounds.

But other features are not so obvious. The park has special computer bracelets that allow you to keep track of each other while in the park. The size of the crowd is also controlled, because big numbers can be overwhelming for many of these kids.

Debbie West, the mother of 11-year-old Ashton West who has cerebral palsy and ditaxia, said the park is an opportunity she never thought her son would have.

"You see them struggle with so many different things, little things that no one could even imagine," she said. "You know seeing here without that limitation, it is just, it's overwhelming, it is amazing, it is fun.

"I just admire anybody with disabilities who can just, they find their way, they make their way and do what they want to do, but they have to do it differently," she said. "You are only disabled in an environment that makes you that way. And you are not here."

It is a sentiment shared by Courtney Wyrtzen, who brought her daughter Blythe to the park. When Wyrtzen looks at her daughter's face while in the park, she said she sees "pure joy."

Hearing and seeing how happy the park makes people is the best reward for his hard work, Hartman said.

"The best thanks is when these kids come up to me and hug me and say thank you and they don't even have to say thank you, you can see it in their eyes," he said.

And of course, there is the incredible added reward of finally having a place where his own child, Morgan, can play and feel like she belongs.

"Morgan taught me that there's more to life in many ways than what I saw before," said Hartman. "The blessing that Morgan has brought is beyond anything that I ever could have imagined and could explain."

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