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How a loving dad built a $51 million theme park for special needs daughter

Parents are capable of unconditional love for their children but how many can actually build a $51 million theme park for them?

Inspired by their special needs daughter Morgan, that is exactly what Gordon and Maggie Hartman did – build a theme park specially designed for people with physical and cognitive challenges.

In 2005, the Hartmans were enjoying their vacation when they noticed that children kept away from Morgan as the family enjoyed the swimming pool at their hotel.

Born with a form of autism, Morgan has the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old. The experience weighed heavily in Gordon’s mind.

He said, “Morgan is just a wonderful young lady. When you meet her you will always get a smile and she will always want to offer a hug. But there were so many times we couldn’t take her places.”

They wanted a place where Morgan could feel comfortable, and others would be comfortable when they interacted with her. Gordon shared, “We realized such an inclusive place didn’t exist.”

So in 2007, Gordon decided to build one himself. After selling his homebuilding businesses in 2005, he established The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to help people with disabilities.

A former property developer, he then began planning the development of an ultra-accessible theme park.  “We wanted a theme park where everyone could do everything, where people with and without special needs could play,” he said.

In consultation with doctors, therapists, parents, and people with disabilities, Gordon built Morgan’s Wonderland on an abandoned quarry in northeast San Antonio, with a butterfly as its logo.  

The park opened on April 10, 2010, and is actually the first theme park ever built with special needs individuals in mind. Built at an initial cost of $34 million, it features 25 elements such as rides, splash pads, playgrounds, Ferris wheel, miniature train, and other colorful attractions, and is completely wheelchair-accessible.

Visitors often express that it is the first time for them to experience these facilities. Better yet, admission is free for anyone with special needs!

Morgan’s Wonderland is naturally inspired by Morgan, who continues to smile through her physical and mental difficulties. The park is a shrine to love, friendship, and inclusion, and welcomes the young and old, healthy or sick, shy or outgoing.

It provides a safe, creative, and fun space where families, friends, and caregivers can build memories and encourage and appreciate each other.

From the time it opened, Morgan’s Wonderland has since welcomed more than a million visitors from 67 countries and from all 50 American states.

Hiring is inclusive as well, with a third of the staff as people with disabilities. Gordon explained, “I realized Morgan was one of the lucky ones because she had many of the things she needed. I didn’t want cost to be a barrier for others with special needs.”

The park has many features that thoughtfully consider the comfort and welfare of its target customers. For instance, the theme park was expanded to include a fully-accessible water park called Morgan’s Inspiration Island.

“Fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot. So we decided to create a water park next door,” Gordon said.

Warm water is used in some parts of the island to help visitors with muscular problems. Waterproof motorized wheelchairs are available, as well as an accessible river boat ride.

Gordon understands how well his clients appreciate the park. “A man came up to me at Inspiration Island and just held my hand,” he said. “He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn’t been able to play in water before.”

Three out of four visitors to the park are actually not disabled, an impact that the Hartmans actually hoped for. Gordon reflected, “It helps people realize that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same.

I saw one girl in a wheelchair go up to another girl without special needs, and they began playing together. That was really cool.”

Morgan is a regular at the park, often accompanied by his father, and has become somewhat of a celebrity. Gordon said, “When she comes here she’s a rock star! Lots of people want to talk to her and take her picture, she’s very good with it.”

Morgan is generally happiest on the swings and the sand zone. Though she knows that the park is named after her, she remains completely unaware that her condition inspired her father to help so many other people like her. Morgan has already come a long way.

“She talks more now and most of her physical issues have been taken care of through numerous surgeries. We’re so proud of how far she has come,” Gordon stated.

Though there are been great interest in recreating Morgan’s Wonderland in other areas, Gordon is not planning to open more parks. Instead, he is focused on developing educational facilities for teenagers with special needs in San Antonio.

For now, millions can enjoy the attractions at Morgan’s Wonderland, and continue to break the barriers for people with special needs and disabilities.

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