Kind Dad Sold Business And Built Inclusive $51M Amusement Park For Disabled Daughter

When a kind father realized that there were no amusement parks where his disabled daughter and others with disabilities could play, he decided to build one.

Gordon Hartman once brought his 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, to a swimming pool while on a family vacation, and he noticed that as she went up to some children playing in the pool and tried to make friends with them, that they quickly left the pool. He thinks that they shied away from his daughter because they did not know how to react to someone with a developmental disability. Doctors have explained to Gordon that Morgan has the cognitive ability of a five-year-old, and they also diagnosed her with a form of autism.

As Gordon watched this incident at the pool with his joyful daughter, he began to think deeply on what he could do.

“Morgan is just a wonderful young lady. When you meet her you will always get a smile and she will always want to offer a hug. But there were so many times we couldn’t take her places,” he said.

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

Gordon and his wife Maggie began searching for places to bring their daughter where she would feel comfortable and where others would feel comfortable interacting with her.

“We realized such an inclusive place didn’t exist,” Gordon said.

So he decided to build it himself. Gordon sold his homebuilding businesses in 2005 and setup The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, a non-profit designed to help people with special needs and disabilities. With the help of doctors, therapists, other parents and consultants, Gordon designed 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,” he said.

The 25-acre amusement park, called Morgan’s Wonderland, was built for $34 million in San Antonio, Texas, and opened in 2010. It includes a fully-accessible Ferris wheel, adventure playground, wheelchair-friendly river rides and a miniature train. To top off this beautiful project, Gordon decided to make entry free for everyone with special needs or a disability of any kind.

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

“I realized Morgan was one of the lucky ones because she had many of the things she needed. I didn’t want cost to be a barrier for others with special needs,” Gordon said.

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

For many with disabilities who come to Morgan’s Wonderland, it’s the first time that they’ve been able to experience the rides and attractions. Since its opening, they’ve had more than one million visitors from 67 countries and from every state in America. A third of the staff at Morgan’s Wonderland have disabilities as well, and the environment is full of love.

The wonderland does not turn a profit, but kind sponsors and donors kindly help keep this beautiful park open.

“We open every year knowing we’re going to lose over $1m and we need to recover that through fundraising and partners,” Gordon said.

They recently expanded to include Morgan’s Inspiration Island; a $17 million fully-accessible water park.

“Fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot, so we decided to create a water park next door.”

Several areas of the island feature warm water, which helps visitors with muscular conditions. The park also provides waterproof motorized wheelchairs to guests which run on compressed air rather than batteries.

For Gordon, the park has become more than just about helping his daughter.

“Yesterday a man came up to me at Inspiration Island and just held my hand,” Gordon said. “He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn’t been able to play in water before.”

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

Three out of four visitors to the park are not disabled, and this is exactly the type of atmosphere that Gordon wanted: one where the disabled and the non-disabled are able to play well together.

“It helps people realize that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same,” he said. “I saw one girl in a wheelchair go up to another girl without special needs, and they began playing together. That was really cool.”

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

Gordan has received hundreds of letters and requests asking him to build similar theme parks in their area, but rather than open multiple theme parks, he is now devoting his time towards providing educational facilities for teenagers with special needs.

“I know there are a lot of different organizations trying to build something like Morgan’s Wonderland elsewhere and we’ll continue to work with them,” he said.

His daughter is now somewhat of a celebrity at the theme park, and everyone wants to play with and take their picture with her.

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

“When she comes here she’s a rock star! Lots of people want to talk to her and take her picture, she’s very good with it,” Gordan said.

Photo credit: Morgan’s Wonderland

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