After building an amusement park for special needs children, one kind dad became a hero in his community. Gordon Hartman felt inspired to create the park after taking his family on vacation. His daughter Morgan is on the autism spectrum and requires special cognitive and physical care.
On the trip, Hartman tried to find opportunities for her to play safely and thought the hotel pool seemed like the perfect idea. While the family swam, Hartman noticed that his then 12-year-old daughter struggled to make friends. As she got closer to the other children, they grew apprehensive and bolted out of the pool.
Hartman will never forget the disappointed and hurt expression on Morgan’s face. He felt heartbroken and vowed to find a park where Morgan could play comfortably and feel included. However, after researching, Hartman realized that no theme parks existed for autistic or special needs children.
So, he decided to build the park himself for Morgan and other differently abled children. On April 10, 2010, he unveiled Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park designed for special needs children. In 2017, the Ultra-Accessible™ theme park opened its addition, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a splash park complete with a riverboat adventure ride and a giant treehouse. The park made TIME Magazine’s “World’s Greatest Places” list in 2018.
The park is located in San Antonio, Texas, and caters to people with and without special needs. Hartman said he wanted to create a place where everyone could interact and understand one another better. Both theme park areas promote inclusion to benefit all children, regardless of their needs or abilities.
“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 told PEOPLE in an interview. “That’s what my dream was.”
Dad Builds Fully Accessible Park for Special Needs Children
Hartman had ample experience as a construction worker and landscaper, an ideal background for theme park development. He began landscaping at fifteen and launched his homebuilding enterprise at nineteen.
When he turned twenty-three, he owned a successful land development and construction company. At the time, it was the largest locally owned home construction business in San Antonio.
The generous father used all this knowledge and expertise to start a new journey in helping special needs children. After selling his homebuilding business in 2005, he founded The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to support individuals with cognitive and physical disabilities.
He also hoped raising awareness about special needs children would make it easier for Morgan to make friends. Hartman thought educating people about children with disabilities would help break down their barriers. The fully accessible theme park provided the ideal environment for people with and without special needs to connect.
“It’s about not letting anyone feel different. That’s what we tried to do with this park.”
Hartman organized countless fundraisers and collaborated with architects, engineers, doctors, and therapists to construct the $35 million park. They began construction in 2007 and completed the massive project in 2010. In 2018, the nonprofit opened a $17 million water park called Morgan’s Inspiration Island, an expansion of the original park.
The Ultra-Accessible™, fully-inclusive park offers something for the whole family to enjoy. Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island feature over 25 attractions, colorful playscapes, and interactive displays scattered across 25 acres. Some attractions at Morgan’s Wonderland include a wheelchair-accessible train, swings, a carousel, and a Ferris wheel.
Morgan’s Inspiration Island offers a fully accessible river ride, colorful splash pads, and even waterproof wheelchairs–all free of charge. It also features warm water attractions to accommodate guests who cannot tolerate cold temperatures. The park provides special wristbands to keep track of visitors, a feature handy for children with ASD.
Over one million people have visited Morgan’s Wonderland since it opened in 2010. All special needs children receive free admission to both parks, no questions asked. Hartman also promotes workplace inclusion at his theme parks, as about one-third of staff members include people with special needs.
Many Parents Have Expressed Gratitude for the Theme Parks
Hartman said that his daughter, now 28 years old, continues to inspire people worldwide. Her story raises awareness for special needs children and shows the importance of making the world more inclusive. After the incident in the pool years ago, Hartman and his wife resolved to create a supportive environment for all children.
Their website reads:
“It is Morgan’s sincere hope that everyone with a special need — young and older, healthy or ailing, introspective, or outgoing — will be touched extraordinarily by Morgan’s Wonderland: a shrine of inclusion, an oasis of friendship, an unforgettable wonderland… Morgan’s Wonderland!”
Many parents who visit the park have come to Hartman in tears of joy. They feel grateful for his dedicated efforts to create a safe, fun place for special needs children to play.
One day at the water park, an emotional father approached Hartman and began to cry. The man pointed to the heartwarming sight of his adult son splashing and playing in the water. He admitted to Hartman that he had never witnessed his child playing like that before.
Another couple visiting from Michigan thanked Hartman for providing their daughter with an accessible, inclusive place to play. Before, she watched other children play and couldn’t experience it for herself.
“So many people told us that this would be an opportunity for our daughter to finally have a place where she wouldn’t have to sit on the sidelines; she could actually do everything,” they told him.
Hartman felt moved and touched by their story.
“That’s exactly right,” he replied. “That’s exactly what this whole place is about.
Final Thoughts on Kind Dad Building Theme Park For Special Needs Children
One selfless dad created a theme park to honor his special-needs daughter. After watching Morgan struggle to make friends, he discovered his true purpose: helping people with special needs feel loved and included. So, Hartman created a foundation to support individuals with physical and mental disabilities. He also built a massive theme park so everyone could play, laugh, and connect regardless of their abilities. What an amazing, devoted father!