Having a child with special needs requires 100% of parents’ dedication, patience, and time. They would just do anything to keep them happy. When Gordon Hartman watched how his 12-year-old daughter couldn’t make any friends at a public swimming pool, he was left heartbroken. At the same time, this was the biggest incentive for him to start building a place where his daughter could play and be happy like the other kids. He created Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, an amusement park for children, accessible for those with special needs.
His daughter Morgan is on the autism spectrum and experiences a cognitive delay.
The 53-year-old father began his pursuit of helping those with disabilities when he founded The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation. First, he sold off his homebuilding business in 2005. After the incident at the pool, he realized that Morgan can make friends more easily if there is a place where all the children would gather. Hartman wanted to build a theme park that included people with and without special needs like no other place before it.
“It’s a park for 100 percent of the people, not one for 90 or 80 percent of them, it’s for everybody, no matter how acute their special need may be,” Hartman tells PEOPLE. “That’s what my dream was.”
“It’s about not letting anyone feel different,” he explains. “That’s what we tried to do with this park.”
Hartman’s dream started coming true. He held many meetings to raise money and collaborated with architects, engineers, doctors, and therapists to design the $35 million park. Construction began in 2007 and was completed in 2010. This year, the nonprofit added a fully-accessible $17 million water park called Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
Morgan’s Wonderland includes a fully-accessible train, playground, and Ferris wheel. The water park features a wheelchair-accessible river ride and areas with warm water as well. Those help children with muscular conditions. The park also provides special wrist bands that can track the whereabouts of visitors, which is handy for those with autism.
Morgan’s Wonderland has had more than a million visitors since it opened. Surprisingly, one-third of its staff includes people with special needs. The interesting thing about it is that it is free for anyone with a mental or physical disability. The parks are funded through donations, and Hartman says they operate at a loss — losing about $1 million a year. They depend very much on fundraising.