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Morgan's Wonderland

The world’s first theme park for special needs people to play alongside able bodied people is the result of one man’s determination and his daughter’s inspiration

by Kathleen Whyman | Published in Leisure Handbook 2014 issue 1
Read on turning pages | Download PDF of this issue

Opened in April 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland was designed to be accessible free by all special needs individuals and to be enjoyed by everyone. Featuring 25 rides and attractions, the US$35m (£22m, E27m), 25-acre theme park in San Antonio, Texas, US, has attracted more than 300,000 guests from all 50 states and 40 other countries. One family even moved from California to Texas so that they could bring their family to the park on a regular basis. And it’s all thanks to a girl named Morgan.

It was seeing his daughter Morgan, who has cognitive delay, struggling to interact with other children on a family holiday that gave Gordon Hartman the determination to create an attraction everyone could enjoy together.

“It wasn’t that these children didn’t want to play with her,” Hartman recalls. “But Morgan has a hard time with some forms of communication at times and was unable to convey her desire to join in. The children didn’t know how to respond, as they’d never played with someone with special needs. Morgan, who’s now 19, has an incredible attitude and a very upbeat approach to life and it’s a shame not everyone gets to enjoy that.”

Hartman’s vision was an ultra-accessible family fun park, aptly called Morgan’s Wonderland, which would welcome all, regardless of their abilities, and integrate special needs people with able bodied visitors to eliminate any awkwardness or stigmas that may exist.

Such a park had never been created before, so Hartman set out to convince people that it was needed and also that it needed funding.

SOAR
His first step was to put in $1m (£623,500, E765,500) to get the process started. “I’d been in the home building and land development business for 23 years and had the opportunity to sell all my companies. This gave me the means and the time to focus all my energy on creating a park for Morgan and people like her,” he says.

Next, Hartman set up Sports Outdoor And Recreation (SOAR) Park, Inc, a non-profit organisation, and acquired more than 100 acres in an abandoned limestone quarry on San Antonio’s north-east side.

Under the umbrella of SOAR are two business entities – Morgan’s Wonderland and the STAR (South Texas Area Regional) Soccer Complex. “San Antonio is a very strong soccer city, but we hadn’t been putting any money into soccer facilities,” Hartman explains. “I wanted to do something for the community and bring some funding in.” The land was split into two parcels, with 25 acres set aside for a theme park that was designed for the special needs community and the rest for a first-class soccer complex featuring 13 full-size soccer fields. The playing fields are rented out for tournaments and league play to provide income for the operating costs at non-profit Morgan’s Wonderland.

Buoyed by the popularity of STAR Soccer, Hartman launched a community-wide campaign -- Soccer for a Cause -- to bring professional soccer to San Antonio. This led to the creation of the San Antonio Scorpions FC of the North American Soccer League. Because of the Scorpions’ success and fan enthusiasm, an 8,000-seat multi-purpose stadium – expandable in two further stages to 18,000 seats – has been built for the 2013 soccer season, outdoor concerts and other special events. Like STAR Soccer, the Scorpions convey all net profits to Morgan’s Wonderland to defray operating expenses and to expand programmes and services for the special needs community.

“This is the very first professional team to be created for the expressed purpose of benefitting a cause rather than an investor,” Hartman said. In August, Toyota announced sponsorships of both Morgan’s Wonderland and the Scorpions’ new stadium, now known as Toyota Field.

RESEARCH
To learn what others would like in the park, Hartman held numerous forums for people with special needs, caregivers, doctors, therapists and family members. Hundreds of people came and it resulted in two particular elements being highlighted. The first was for a very safe environment, so visitors who have special needs could play and do things on their own. Consequently, the park has one entry and exit point, where visitors get an RFID wristband.
Location station monitors throughout the park enable visitors to see where another member of their group is by scanning their own wristband and children cannot leave the park without the person they arrived with. Guaranteeing safety and security gives caregivers peace of mind so they can also relax and enjoy themselves.

The second request was for a casual environment without the crowds that parks usually have. This is to ensure special needs visitors who are uncomfortable in stimulating situations could enjoy themselves. To achieve this, the park has a policy of closing the gates to avoid too many guests. It can hold 5,000, but the maximum allowed is 1,500. “It’s not about the number of tickets I sell; it’s the quality of experience guests have while they’re here,” says Hartman. “It sounds counter productive, but that’s not what we’re about.”

CHALLENGES
With his business plan in place, Hartman still needed to raise $34m (£21.1m, E26m) to actually build the park, which was challenging initially. “Fundraising was difficult because it was a concept that hadn’t been done before,” he says. “People didn’t realise why it was necessary. We had to overcome that and explain the importance of it and what it can do.”

The park’s aim is to encourage the inclusion and interaction of people with or without special needs. “Everyone understands the concept of play,” says Hartman. “We want people to realise that just because someone might not be able to see or hear or is sitting in a wheelchair, it doesn’t mean that they don’t have a personality or aren’t fun or intelligent or can’t contribute to society. We’re aiming to break through those barriers of misunderstanding and, hopefully, guests will transfer this knowledge to the grocery store, library, school or place of work. It’s all an educational experience designed to improve mutual understanding.

“Once people got the concept, there was a real desire to get involved,” he continues. “We received donations from foundations, some public money and some private money from wonderful people. One lady wrote a cheque for $20 and asked if we could delay banking the cheque by a month as she didn’t have enough money in her account but wanted to help out. A little girl in California sold her rock collection and mailed us $5 and 31 cents. We were encouraged by how many people wanted to contribute.”

The desire to make the project happen meant that from Hartman’s original idea to opening took only 39 months, despite the complications of creating something new. “If we ever ran into a problem, the desire to overcome the obstacle was so strong that it was never really an issue – we overcame every problem,” says Hartman.

THE RIDES
One such problem could have been building the theme park itself and creating the rides. To avoid this, Hartman bypassed conventional theme park consultants, in case they tried to convince him to build a standard park and retrofit it, and instead hired people who weren’t biased in any direction of how things should be done.

“None of our business acquaintances, contractors, manufacturers or vendors had experience in this, but they wanted to get involved,” says Hartman. “Everything we created was being made for the first time. We knew we’d make mistakes as we were trying new things and were prepared to keep trying until we got it right.” Three rides were custom-designed for the park by Chance Rides and a lot of time went into ensuring they looked like regular rides, as opposed to rides for people with special needs. The carousel is sunk into the ground so that people in wheelchairs can access it. The wheelchair is secured to a platform, themed like a dragon to match the other animals on the carousel, which goes up and down so that person gets the same motion and experience as the people going round on the horses. Benches have been suspended between the centre of some animals, which, again, go up and down, so people who aren’t able to climb onto a horse are still able to have just the same experience.

On all rides, lights flicker before they start to indicate to people who are hearing impaired that motion is about to begin. For the visually impaired, a tannoy announcement counts down to the start of the ride so guests can anticipate the movement as it starts.

Suggestions of a rollercoaster were instantly rejected. “There’s no way I can design a rollercoaster that goes upside down and is going to be safe for every one of my special needs guests,” explains Hartman. “At Morgan’s Wonderland, every ride in our park can be experienced by everybody. I’m not going to put something in here that excludes some of our guests.”

Rather than requesting a patent on the rides, Hartman is keen for Chance Rides to replicate them: “The company now has a new product which enables wheelchairs to be put on any carousel. The next time anyone’s building a carousel, anywhere in the world, Chance Rides can ask if they want one that’s wheelchair accessible. We’re trying to push this out to all parks.”

ADMISSION PRICES
Admission to Morgan’s Wonderland is free for guests with special needs. For others, admission fees are minimal. As a result, the park doesn’t make money – in fact it loses money, which is why the revenue streams from the soccer park and pro soccer are so vital. “We realise many families with members having physical or cognitive special needs are on tight budgets,” says Hartman, “so we try to make everything we do for guests as affordable as possible. We even allow them to bring their own food and drinks into the park and to dine at our Picnic Place.”

EXPANSION
So, does the park’s phenomenal success mean that we can expect to see more Morgan’s Wonderlands in the future? “Yes,” says Hartman without hesitation. “When I first came up with the concept, I never thought it would have global impact. But there’s a pent up demand for a place like this. There’s all sorts of potential. Now it’s a case of when, not if, more Morgan’s Wonderlands will be built.”

Hartman has had enquiries from other states in the US, the Netherlands, Israel, Australia and Canada. “There’s a lot of homework and planning involved before building a park,” he advises. “For example, they have to have another revenue stream to support the park. We’re taking our time because we want to help people be successful rather than rushing into something and it not working.”

Hartman opened a school called the Monarch Academy, on site last year for 25 students from grade six to age 24, which he also plans to expand. “Developing a school for special needs individuals was always a dream of mine and having it by the park means that we can use much of the park’s infrastructure to support the school,” he says. “The school isn’t just about learning your ABCs, it’s about learning life skills and job skills. We plan to make the school larger so we can teach hundreds of children in the future.”

MORGAN
Morgan attends the school and loves the park, but to her it’s just a park. “Her cognitive delay doesn’t allow her to understand the magnitude of what she’s done and her ability to make a real difference because of her incredible attitude to life, even though she has many things that make her life more difficult,” says Hartman proudly. “She often wonders why people want her picture or want her to sign her name. She sees Morgan’s Wonderland as somewhere that she and her friends, both with and without special needs, can play together.” And, thanks to her dad and his supporters, so can many other people.

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