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Father Creates Theme Park for Kids With Disabilities

Retired builder Gordon Hartman built a welcoming wonderland for everyone, including his daughter

Video: Gordon Hartman Opens a Theme Park for Daughter With Disabilities

Gordon Hartman: When my daughter, Morgan, was 12, we were at a pool while on vacation, and she saw some children throwing a ball back and forth. She tried to join them, but Morgan has a significant cognitive delay, and she wasn’t able to say, “Hey, can I play?” These were nice kids, but they didn’t understand what was going on, so they jumped out of the pool and rushed away from her in fear.

I saw Morgan’s face fall. All she had wanted to do was play. My wife, Maggie, and I started talking about where we might go that would be welcoming for Morgan. We tried taking her to Disney World, but it was too loud. The crowds were too much. We took her to this place or that place, but nowhere that was really accommodating for someone with special needs. We kept asking each other, “Where can she be just like any other kid?”

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This was in 2006. I was 41 years old, and I had just sold a group of real estate companies in San Antonio that I’d started building at age 19. I was ready for something new, and I knew how to develop a project from start to finish. I had created a foundation to help people with special needs. Eventually, Maggie and I decided that we would use foundation funds to try to build an inclusive theme park. Not a place for people with disabilities, but a place for everyone.

I had no idea whether this new concept would work. Morgan is one of an estimated 49 million people in the United States with some form of disability, and each one is different, like a fingerprint. We had to bring in doctors and therapists and other experts to understand what was needed. I bought some land in town, and I sought donors to join the project. That’s how Morgan’s Wonderland got started. It now has 26 different attractions, including a train, an off-road adventure ride and a catch-and-release fishing lake.

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A lot of times, we were able to make the attractions more welcoming with very simple fixes. For example, on the carousel we made the turntable flush with the ground so that someone in a wheelchair could get on, and we included two chariots that can accommodate riders in wheelchairs. The chariots go up and down, just like every animal on the carousel. We believe that if you see something you want to do, you ought to be able to do it, not just watch.

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We’ve learned from our visitors too. At first we thought people who’d come to a place like this would only want to eat healthy food, but we heard different. Now we offer amusement park fare like nachos and cotton candy, along with the healthier stuff.

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The park opened 12 years ago and has welcomed more than 2.3 million visitors. It’s a place where families can relax and have fun — we hear a lot of laughter and see a lot of excited dancing. We’ve also added a water park, a sports facility and a 102-acre camp with horses, swimming pools and zip-lining. Later this year we’ll be opening a health care facility so that people with special challenges can get medical and dental treatment in an environment that works for them.

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Morgan and Gordon Hartman
Morgan is one of an estimated 49 million people in the United States with some form of disability, and each one is different, like a fingerprint.

Morgan is 28 years old now, and she loves the park, though she doesn’t really understand her role in its creation. To her it’s just a great place to go. Her favorite ride is the swings. She also loves the nachos — she asks for them on every visit. —As told to Ellen Lee

Philanthropist and former homebuilder Gordon Hartman, 58, directs the boards of Morgan’s Wonderland, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, Morgan’s Wonderland Sports and Morgan’s Wonderland Camp in San Antonio, Texas.

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