Call it a stroke of inspiration, a moment of clarity, or just a father’s love—but one sunny afternoon in a hotel pool in 2006, Gordon Hartman had what Oprah Winfrey might call an “Aha moment.” That moment would change not only the lives of Hartman and his family, but also the lives of countless other children and families.
Hartman watched his daughter Morgan, who has significant cognitive delays and physical disabilities, try to join three other kids playing with a ball in the pool, but they abruptly left to avoid playing with her. Morgan seemed more confused than crushed, but Hartman was heartbroken. “I could tell these were nice kids, but Morgan was different from them, and they didn’t know what to do. They didn’t realize that in many ways she is a lot like them,” he says. “She just wanted to play.”
As confusion clouded Morgan’s face and stole her smile, Hartman recognized another special need that wasn’t being met—the need to play and interact in everyday ways with other kids.
In the weeks that followed, Hartman began to envision a level playing field—an accessible, inclusive place where special needs kids could play and interact with other children in a safe, fun setting—a theme park where everyone, special needs or not, could feel worthwhile and welcome, and kids like Morgan could come out of their lonely cocoons and soar like butterflies.
In time, Hartman’s bright idea became a brilliant place: Morgan’s Wonderland—a 32-million-dollar amusement park built by Hartman and an assembly of dedicated, creative people.
Today Morgan’s Wonderland is a 25-acre amusement park visited by more than 100,000 people each year. Opened on April 10, 2010, with actress and philanthropist Eva Longoria and NBA basketball legend David Robinson as special guests, the park provides a safe, clean and fun environment free of economic barriers that all individuals, regardless of age, special needs or disabilities, can come to and enjoy.
Created with those with special cognitive and physical needs in mind, Morgan’s Wonderland is home to ultra-accessible rides and playscapes, including a carousel; an eight-acre lake stocked with a variety of fish for catch-and-release fishing, water cannons and remote-controlled boats; a gymnasium; an amphitheater; a roadway with off-road vehicles; a miniature train; a sand circle; swings; a water play area; and a Sensory Village featuring various storefronts such as a grocery, theater and auto repair shop and contains activities designed to stimulate the senses. The park also sits adjacent to a special needs school, Monarch Academy, and a pro soccer field.
Although Morgan’s Wonderland was built with special needs in mind, kids of all ages and abilities love it. Best of all, its environment encourages understanding and compassion. “The staff here is so patient and helpful,” say Jeffrey and Laura Dillingham, whose daughter was born with Porencephaly, an extremely rare cephalic disorder that in Bella’s case means the top right side of her brain is missing.
“It’s wonderful, and many of the staff members have special needs too. Here, our 7-year old daughter Bella is able to do things she never could before. At other amusement parks, she couldn’t do 90% of what others were able to do. At Morgan’s Wonderland, she can ride the carousel or the train as many times as she wants, and she loves being around the other kids.”
Although Bella can’t articulate her delight in words, her joy is apparent. Moments like that make Morgan’s Wonderland a godsend for the Dillinghams. “Our Bella is not only treated just like any other kid—here she feels like a star,” says Laurie.
Another star who often frequents the park is Mariah Kilbourne, Miss Wheelchair America 2013, a dynamic 26-year-old born with cerebral palsy. Kilbourne, who always wears colorful clothes and a big smile, leads her friends in wheelchair races to the train and keeps everyone laughing.
“Kids that come here grow up with a sense that it’s OK to be different. I love the idea that kids get used to differences and see that my normal is normal too,” says Kilbourne. “Kids that come here are learning to be ‘inclined for inclusion.’ It is a unique place where everyone has a sense of belonging, community and play.”
“The park allows us to spend time with other families who face the same joys and challenges we do,” say the Dillinghams. “Morgan’s Wonderland has given Bella something to do—it’s that simple. In a world that doesn’t hold lots for a child like her to do or enjoy, Bella knows there is a place where she has fun.”
In 2010, Hartman opened the STAR (South Texas Area Regional) Soccer Complex adjacent to the park. All the 75-acre soccer facility’s net profits go to the nonprofit Morgan’s Wonderland. Hartman then launched Soccer for a Cause, a communitywide effort to bring pro soccer to the Alamo City that resulted in the acquisition of a North American Soccer League franchise, the Scorpions. Like STAR Soccer, the Scorpions convey all net profits to Morgan’s Wonderland, making it the first team in professional sports history to be organized for the benefit of a nonprofit helping those with special needs.
Then, in August 2012, global automotive giant Toyota announced its presenting sponsorship of the Scorpions’ new stadium, now known as Toyota Field, an 8,000-seat stadium and entertainment venue that opened in 2013. Toyota also became presenting sponsor of Morgan’s Wonderland, so the future looks bright for Hartman’s brilliant park.
“There are 50 million people in this country with special needs—that’s roughly 15 percent of the population,” says Hartman. “Morgan’s Wonderland is a special place for special friends to play together.”