Man builds $51m theme park for daughter

A father from Texas realised there were no theme parks where his disabled daughter could play. So he decided to build one.

Gordon Hartman had just got out of the swimming pool on a family holiday, when his 12-year-old daughter Morgan went up to some children playing in the water. She tried to make friends with them but they quickly left the pool.

Hartman thinks they shied away from her because they didn’t know how to react to someone with a disability – Morgan has the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old as well as a form of autism.

The incident played on his mind.

Hartman and his wife Maggie asked other parents where they could take their daughter – somewhere she would feel comfortable, and others would feel comfortable interacting with her.

“We realised such an inclusive place didn’t exist,” says Hartman.

So in 2007 he decided to build it himself. A former property developer, he sold his homebuilding businesses in 2005 to set up The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, a non-profit organisation that seeks to help people with disabilities. Then he set about creating the “world’s first ultra-accessible theme park”.

“We wanted a theme park where everyone could do everything, where people with and without special needs could play,” Hartman says.

He brought together doctors, therapists, parents and other people with and without disabilities to consult on the facilities. These were built on the 25-acre site of a disused quarry in San Antonio, Texas.

The park, called Morgan’s Wonderland, cost $34m and opened in 2010. Attractions include a fully-accessible Ferris wheel, adventure playground and miniature train. Visitors regularly tell Hartman it is the first time they’ve been able to experience such attractions.

There is also a carousel with specially designed chariots for wheelchairs that go up and down alongside the animals.

Since it opened Morgan’s Wonderland has received over a million visitors from 67 countries and from all 50 American states. A third of staff have disabilities and entrance is free to any guest with a condition.

This year, the theme park was expanded with the opening of Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a fully-accessible water park.

According to Hartman, fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot. So a decision was made to create a water park next door.

Parts of the island use warm water, which helps visitors with muscular problems. Waterproof motorised wheelchairs are provided, which run on compressed air rather than batteries. There is also an accessible river boat ride.

Altogether, the water park cost $17m.