Access: Morgan’s Wonderland

By Frances J. Folsom

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There’s no need to worry about accessibility if you take your kids to Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio. Every ride is fully wheelchair accessible.

Morgan Hartman loves her family, music, her dog and cat and butterflies. Morgan was born with severe cognitive delays. Despite the challenges that she has faced in her young life she has an ebullient personality giving hugs and smiles to everyone she meets. To her parents, Gordon and Maggie Hartman, Morgan is the light of their lives.

Several years ago while watching Morgan attempting to interact with a group of children, Gordon had the germ of an idea: why not build a park specifically for people with physical and mental challenges. Being a businessman and philanthropist, Hartman put the wheels in motion. In 2007 Gordon and Maggie founded the Hartman Family Foundation, contributing $1 million of their own money to it.

They went on to raise another $33 million in donations from the city of San Antonio, the state of Texas, charitable foundations, corporations and individuals.

In 2009 Morgan’s Wonderland became a reality when the Hartmans purchased an abandoned quarry on the outskirts of San Antonio. They developed 25-acres of the former Longhorn Quarry for Morgan’s Wonderland, a specially outfitted theme park for those with physical and mental disabilities.

According to Gordon, a local developer, “Morgan’s Wonderland is a special place where anyone can have fun, but it was created with special-needs individuals in mind. We’ve taken an abandoned rock quarry and transformed it into an outdoor recreation oasis for those with cognitive and physical challenges. Unfortunately, countless children and adults with special needs do not have access to facilities that can help them fully enjoy outdoor recreation. We truly hope this park will change that.”

To learn what was needed, the Hartman’s held public forums with parents and caregivers of people with disabilities and with representatives of the Wounded Warriors Program from Brook Army Medical Center.

Saying that this is a happy place is putting it mildly; nothing here is painted institutional gray or hospital white. The bright colors are Morgan’s favorites: reds, oranges, yellows, blues and purples, with colorful butterfly logos everywhere.

Chance Morgan, one of the country’s largest amusement ride companies, created the park’s major attractions: the Wonderland Express Train, the Old Time Carousel, the swings and the off-road adventure ride. Each ride is designed so that it is 100 percent wheelchair accessible. In June 2010, the park was awarded the United Cerebral Palsy Universal Accessibility Design Award.

The Wonderland Express train has wide openings making it easier for people in wheelchairs to board it. The train chugs around a man-made lake where cannons spew water while guests sail remote controlled
boats and fly-fish from the shore.

Brightly colored chariots accommodate wheelchairs on the Old Time Carousel, and safety seats and harnesses are on the backs of the decorated horses, elephants, and hippos that go merrily up and down.

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Everyone loves a swing, and here the swings are made so that wheelchairs can be secured onto special staging with tracks then be pushed like regular swings.

The off-road adventure dune buggies, fitted to a secured track that goes up and down hills and dunes, are equipped so that even guests with severely limited mobility can drive them. The back of each buggy has platforms for wheelchairs.

Designed to look like a life size mechanic’s garage, general store and TV station, the Sensory Village stimulates guests’ senses using colors, lights, sounds and textures. The Water Works is a place to get wet playing with water as it splashes out of pipes and tumbles over water falls.

Park signs are in Braille, restrooms and food stands are ADA-compliant, there’s a first aid house and several picnic areas with tables designed for wheelchairs.

Upon entering the park, guests are given a GPS Adventure Band, a radio frequency identification bracelet. Bright red station monitors are located throughout the park. Should someone become lost or confused, scanning the bracelet at one of the stations will let the guest know where their group is. The GPS can also be used to locate concessions, restrooms and attractions.

Since the park opened in 2010 it has welcomed over 100,000 visitors. The fun here is made possible by the park’s incredible staff, particularly the volunteers. In their bright purple shirts they are everywhere assisting guests. Whether it be pushing swings or taking fish off of hooks, it’s all done with a smile.

If You Go:

Morgan’s Wonderland, 5223 David Edwards Dr., San Antonio, TX, 210-637-3434. www.morganswonderland.com

Admission for anyone with special needs is free; $15 for family members, friends and caregivers. The park is easily reached from downtown San Antonio by VIA Metropolitan Transit www.viainfo.net, which offers accessible buses.

More Playgrounds

To find accessible playgrounds in your neck of the woods, check out NPR’s new database, “Playgrounds for Everyone.” The community-edited guide has detailed information on the accessibility features of over 1,300 playgrounds nationwide. The site allows and encourages users to add to the database by uploading information about parks that are not currently included. If you are unsure about how to rate different accessibility items, the site even has pictures and information to help you. Find it here: http://apps.npr.org/playgrounds/