Texas Theme Park is First to Cater to Special Needs Community

 July 20, 2017

By  Deborah L Weiner Katz, OTR/L, CCM, CLCP

Seven years ago, a former homebuilder named Gordon Hartman, inspired by his cognitively and physically challenged daughter Morgan, built the world’s first theme park for people with special needs. Morgan’s Wonderland is a 25-acre theme park in San Antonio, Texas. Its water park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, just opened last month.

Admission is free for those with special needs. Accompanying parents, friends, caregivers and the general public are charged a nominal admission fee. Since 2010, the theme park has earned its reputation as the “best family attraction” in Texas by VacationHomeRentals.com.

Hartman’s dream of inclusion began when he sold his business to establish the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation. His devotion to his daughter, guided by the principle of inclusion, culminated in the grand opening of a $34 million park featuring more than 25 elements and attractions, including rides, playgrounds, gardens and an eight-acre catch-and-release fishing lake. Events are held at the 18,000 square foot special-event center or the 575-seat amphitheater.

Our favorite feature may be the quiet area provided for anyone overwhelmed by crowds and noise. Picnic and rest areas also provide low-key atmosphere perfect for down time. It is clear that Hartman’s vision was of a haven without barriers for those with special needs but also for their friends, family and caregivers.

Another favorite feature is the GPS Adventure Band. Using RFID (radio frequency identification) technology, the park ensures safety by offering guests the option of wearing a band that, when scanned at one of two Location Stations, can pin point the exact location of each group member. That’s not all. Each band’s unique identification number also allows the guest to partake in electronic activities.

Enough features and activities; let’s talk attractions! This is a theme park, after all. There is The Off Road Adventure Ride, gifting wheelchair riders with the joy of driving custom-designed, sporty vehicles. Guests can ride the Whirling WonderTM Ferris wheel or a carousel that sits flush with the ground. The Wharf juts out into a lake where anyone can captain remote-controlled pirate ships, or simply enjoy some catch-and-release fishing. Then, have those GPS Adventure Bands ready for the Sensory Village, where imaginative play is encourage and all the senses are stimulated.

Maybe it’s the heat but our favorite attraction is definitely Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which just opened last month. This ultra-accessible splash park covers more than 3 acres and is the first of its kind. It features five tropically themed splash pads:

  • Rainbow Reef provides heated water for those who do not enjoy or cannot physically tolerate non-heated water.
  • Calypso Cove is a musical rain garden.
  • Hang Ten Harbor features a large, continuous water wave.
  • Shipwreck Island evokes a pirate’s paradise.
  • Castaway Bay is the site of a giant jungle tree house.

Good ideas are tough to contain. Morgan’s Wonderland’s spirit of helping the special-needs community has spread throughout a destination known as Wonderland, Texas. A school for students with special needs, The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, has been established. Youngsters with physical challenges receive therapy at the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute of Teleton USA (CRIT USA). Meanwhile, STRAPS (South Texas Regional Adaptive and Paralympic Sports) provides sports competition for athletes with disabilities and special needs.

Advocating for the special needs community is hard work but nowhere near as tough as the efforts made daily by the community itself. It is just the loveliest thought that, one day, we may all get to splash around in a musical rain garden together.

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