Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, is the first theme park of its kind in the world to be designed for people with special needs. This summer, the organization set another world record, opening Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the first fully accessible waterpark.
A nonprofit organization that is bolstered by corporate and community sponsorships as well as a significant base of volunteers, Morgan’s Wonderland has always given free admission to guests with special needs—no questions asked—and hires a significant number of staff members with disabilities.
That sets the stage for people experiencing some things for the first time—riding a ferris wheel or a carousel, even the simple pleasure of swinging on a swing—and getting to do so among friends and family members.
The excitement is palpable. Folks spent a day at Morgan’s Wonderland and its brand new waterpark to capture a slice of that joy.
“Being here is not like other places. It has diversity and it’s for everybody. They’re really friendly here, and the staff will help you out.”
— Gardenia Ariza of Houston, mother of two, who has suffered complications following two knee replacement surgeries and has been confined to a wheelchair off and on for a year
The rides at Morgan’s Wonderland, including a ferris wheel, carousel, train, swings and these off-road adventure cars, are all equipped for wheelchairs.
“I love it. There’s so much to do, so many rides. I like the ones that go up and down and around the best, like the ferris wheel.”
Has it been a long time since you’ve been able to go on rides?
“Well, I can now!”
— Ray Longserre, who traveled with a group of residents from a memory care facility in San Antonio.
“This has been far and away the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.”
I’m sure you experience a lot of powerful moments here.
“You know where Ground Zero is? The swings. To see someone swinging for the first time, and seeing a mom be able to push her child on the swing for the first time … it gets you choked up every time.”
— Dominic Fournier, assistant general manager
“It’s very welcoming to the kids with special needs like my sister who has Down syndrome. My sister really likes the cars.”
— Lizjalet Rodriguez, 15, (right), with sister Stephanie Rodriguez, 11, of Houston
“This is my second year volunteering here with my son Brendan through the Young Men’s Service League, a mother/son organization. My son and I did 35 volunteer hours last year and we just love it, it’s a great experience. You get to see people with disabilities and children who don’t have disabilities interacting with one another. There really are not a lot of other opportunities for that. It’s such a special place.”
— Gretchen Herrmann of San Antonio
“We surprised them. They kept asking, ‘Where are we going, Mom? Where are we going?’ and when we pulled into the parking lot they asked, ‘Is this Disney World?’ It kind of felt like it, being in a big theme park but without the crowds. And it doesn’t exclude anyone — everyone is welcome.”
— The Reagor family, Montae, Rachel, Ryan and Riley, of Mansfield, Texas
Donna Brandel, a speech therapist, was visiting Morgan’s Wonderland with her nephew Logan, 12, and client Jonathan Teague of Pflugerville.
Brandel: “We really liked reading Morgan’s story—Logan is a fact guy—and I particularly like the special needs staff.”
Teague: “I like all the water parts here and the carousel and all the rides.”
Morgan Hartman, the namesake of Morgan’s Wonderland inspired her parents Gordon and Maggie Hartman to create the theme park in 2005, following a vacation where couple saw that other kids weren’t interested in interacting with their daughter because of her physical and cognitive challenges. Their dream was to create a truly inclusive, welcoming environment for everyone.
“The environment is very inclusive especially for kids with special needs. We don’t feel judged—you feel free, I guess. There’s so many things for kids to do. We come here every week.”
— Meribeth Patterson (right), with her 4-year-old sister Ruby Patterson of Wimberley, Texas
About one-third of Morgan’s Wonderland staff members have special needs themselves. Administrators say this is an important aspect of “walking the talk” and providing positive role modeling examples for children with disabilities to see people like themselves in leadership roles.
What do you like best about your job?
“The little kids—I just like their enthusiasm. Because being disabled myself, I like how I can see disabled kids not only having fun, but being able to interact with other people. Growing up with spina bifida I was always teased a lot being in a wheelchair. … I have to say my favorite moment working here was when I first started working with operations and two little boys stood in front of me, and I asked them, ‘You want a ride?’ and I just gave them a ride around the park.”
— Connie Sauceda, 21, of San Antonio, a staff member since March. Morgan’s Wonderland is her first job.
Morgan’s Wonderland worked with researchers from the University of Pittsburgh to design a brand new waterproof wheelchair that uses compressed air instead of batteries. It contains no electronic components so that it can be fully submerged in water.
Sam Carver, 16, visited Morgan’s Inspiration Island with his parents, Denise Johnson and Darin Johnson from Wentzville, Missouri. Carver was among the first to try out the new chairs, wheeling it around the oversized splash pads at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, getting a refreshing soak on the 100-degree day. (The wheelchair isn’t pictured here, as it had to be recharged with an air compressor).
How did it feel, Sam? Does the chair feel like the one you’re used to?
Sam: “Yes, it felt great. My favorite thing was to wheel around and feel independent and see the new sites.”
Denise: “Does it make you feel grown up? That is exactly what he wants—he doesn’t want to be with his parents. Typical for his age!”