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Devoted Father Builds $35-Million Theme Park for His Daughter With Special Needs  Allows Disabled People FREE Admission
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Devoted Father Builds $35-Million Theme Park for His Daughter With Special Needs Allows Disabled People FREE Admission

Having a family member with disabilities garners a lot of "I can't imagine how you do it."

And you know what's a terrible feeling?

Having people tell you, "I can't imagine how you do it."

It's my family member -- not a burden.

The Special Need for a Special Place

Growing up with special needs can present certain kinds of challenges, both for the child, as well as for their parents or caregivers.

I know it did for my family.

My brother was diagnosed with Autism at two years old. He was non-verbal and something as simple as mealtime presented a whole new onslaught of challenges. He was unable to communicate what he wanted to eat from the fridge, so instead, he would curl up in a ball on the kitchen floor and cry.

In a laborious routine, my mother would pull out each individual item from the fridge and show it to him, hoping for some kind of tell. This wasn't necessarily the most effective method, but it was all she had.

She would never say it, but I remember, sometimes my mother would cry too. It was a heart-breaking game for her. There were thousands of times when she just wanted to pick him up and rock him in her arms, but physical touch would send my brother into a tailspin (skin-to-skin contact traditionally presents challenges for those on the spectrum).

It seems like an exhausting cycle if you've never been exposed to it. Thankfully, my family and I were given plenty of crash courses from his therapists on why my brother reacted the way he did, and we learned new experiences can result in sensory overload.

The tricky part is, experimentation and new sensory introductions are necessary in order for the child's brain to develop. So what is the parent or child's caregiver supposed to do?

The Best Things Come From Unexpected Places

Believe it or not, Disneyland played a huge part in my brother's therapy.

Research supports that when a child with special needs is exposed to a heightened sensorial environment like Disneyland (bright lights, vivid imagery, loud sounds) the experience can potentially have huge benefits -- think of it like exposure therapy.

The blind spot is a place like Disneyland can get too crowded, too loud,and too noisy

While the Magic Kingdom has made accommodations over the years for differently-abled guests: like introducing the DAS Pass (Disability Assisted Services Pass), which provides certain wheelchair accessibilities and line cuts, Disneyland wasn't actually built with an inclusive-forward mission in mind.

The park has been criticized for its relaxed DAS Pass Guidelines and special needs families have been petitioning for "quiet spaces" in the wake of a recent park-wide ban on wagons (a stroller alternative widely adopted by families with special needs).

Thankfully, it's not the mid-90s anymore and we live in a world with philanthropists who understand the vital need for inclusive forward initiatives and accessible design--philanthropists like Gordon Hartman whose experience watching his own daughter, Morgan grow up, inspired his vision for Morgan's Wonderland: The world’s first theme park designed with individuals with special needs in mind."

Morgan's Story : A Father's Inspiration

It was in 2006, during a family vacation, when San Antonian Philanthropist, Gordon Hartman noticed his daughter Morgan, being excluded from playing with the neuro-typical kids her age.

All children have the tendency to be wary of what is unfamiliar--even neurotypical children. In the case of relating to their peers with special needs, these fears can be incredibly alienating and damaging to the self-esteem of a child on the spectrum.

Hartman recalls the other kids were "leery of Morgan" and her noticeable cognitive differences from them.

As a result, Morgan was left to sit out on the sidelines, while the other kids splashed around, showing off their handstands to each other. Can you imagine anything more heartbreaking for a parent to see?

Well, it's a good thing the Hartman didn't plan to just stand by and watch.

It was on the deck of that hotel swimming pool, where Gordon and his wife Maggie Hartman made up their minds: they were going to create a magical place for their daughter and all the other unique kids like her to play.

It was then the idea for Morgan's Wonderland was dreamed and dreamed big!

The Hartmans set out to create the world's first-ever theme park for kids with special needs.

On April 10, 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland became the world’s first ultra-accessible theme park designed with individuals with special needs in mind.

Against All Odds, They Succeeded

The Hartmans took over a 25-acre plot in North East San Antonio and began to put the plans together to turn an abandoned quarry into a state-of-the-art theme park. The project was no small feat.

In fact, the huge vision required a huge budget. The theme park was not only a multi-million dollar undertaking, but the first of its kind.

The Hartmans couldn't guarantee the project would even succeed. But despite the odds stacked against them, they held onto their determination sparked that day at the hotel pool.

With the image of their daughter sitting on the sidelines and a vision for a better future, the Hartmans knew the essential need for a place like Morgan's Wonderland.

The risk was sky-high — $35 million — but the reward was infinitesimal. Their instincts were right.

Morgan's Wonderland: For Fun and Not-For-Profit

Today, Morgan's Wonderland is thriving as the #1 Ultra-Accessible amusement park. The Wonderland boasts over 25 large-scale attractions, shows, and other inclusive entertainment programs.

In 2017 the theme park celebrated its expansion, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, honored in the “World’s Greatest Places” list by TIME Magazine.

From an aerial view, the park is constructed in the shape of a butterfly, a symbol of the unique theme park's unique purpose.

Most notably, the park offers FREE ADMISSION to all guests with special needs. Morgan's Wonderland and Inspiration Island isn't just a theme park, it's a non-profit organization, supported by The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation.

Changing the World One Wonder at a Time

With show's reality like Netflix's "Love on the Spectrum" and scripted series like "A Kind of Spark" making their splash in popular culture, as a society we are expanding our collective interest to better understand our neurodivergent members, and it's beautiful.

My brother teaching a child with autism to skate (Credit: Canucks Autism Network)

We are daring to see the limitless potential in all individuals no matter how different they may be from us. As a result, we discover these children can be grown up to reach extraordinary heights.

The Hartman's vision behind Morgan's Wonderland was ignited by their belief that all kids deserve to have equal opportunity to just be a kid.

Their contribution to the special needs community isn't just providing kids with a place to play--it's giving families who live with all kinds of special circumstances, permission to dream and inspiring them to achieve those dreams.

No matter how different we may seem on the outside, in the inside we all have the same capacity for love, play, and even wonder.

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