Photo: Copyright 2011 R.C. French Photography
With its fanciful carousel and off-road adventure cars, Morgan's Wonderland looks a lot like any other amusement park. But its lakeside paths are wide enough for people in wheelchairs to ride side by side—on their way to the wheelchair-accessible swings or the Sensory Village, where visitors can explore a simulated grocery store's tactile wares, record a weather forecast at a pretend TV station, or mount artificial horses in a Western-themed stable. Nearby, kids of all ages thrum on the Music Garden's giant xylophone, fish in the lake, and attend basketball clinics with the San Antonio Spurs. Though anyone can enjoy the park's attractions, admission is free for those with special needs—the people for whom the park was specifically designed.
The idea for Morgan's Wonderland—billed as "the world's first ultra-accessible family fun park," and situated on 25 acres in San Antonio—came to philanthropist Gordon Hartman during a family vacation a few years ago. As a group of kids tossed a ball around the hotel pool, Hartman's daughter Morgan, who has cognitive delays and physical challenges, "slowly inched her way over, hoping to join in," he recalls. But the other children weren't sure how to respond, and the game came to a halt.
Hartman had a brainstorm. What kids like Morgan needed, he realized, was "a place where everyone could play together." He and his wife, Maggie, decided to create one, holding public forums to discuss the project. "Hundreds of people came," Hartman says. For the next year, that group of parents, activists, doctors, and designers thought up ways to adapt traditional attractions (the carousel's animals are designed to fit wheelchairs) and create a tranquil atmosphere (the park encourages reservations, which keep crowds—and noise levels—manageable).
Since Morgan's Wonderland opened last year, it's drawn visitors from 49 states and 20 countries. Often among the guests is Morgan, now 17, who loves the swings. "She'd swing forever if she could," says Hartman, who feels the park has given his daughter a taste of independence. The carousel used to scare her, but now she tells her parents not to come along when she rides, preferring to go alone. Says Hartman: "Morgan has learned that she can do that."
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