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Meet the Founder of the First All-Accessible Waterpark

Inclusion and accessibility are two of the most important words in our vocabulary.  I truly believe our inclusivity and accessibility inspire guests to do things previously thought not to be in their range of capabilities.

Every week in The Sunday Paper, we honor individuals who are using their voices, their hearts and their minds to Move Humanity Forward.

This week, we honor Gordon Hartman as the founder and incredible force behind the first-ever universally accessible waterpark: Morgan’s Inspiration Island.

The waterpark is designed for people of all abilities – including those with disabilities – and opened last week in San Antonio, TX. Hartman was inspired by his 23-year-old daughter, Morgan, who has cognitive and physical challenges.

The waterpark is next door to Morgan’s Wonderland, an amusement park that Hartman also founded with the same purpose of providing fun to people of all abilities.

Today, we honor Gordon for his outstanding contribution to the world. He shares his inspiration and perspective below, as well as insight on what’s next.

1. Why a theme park, and now, a water park?

Because play is a common denominator; it has the power to bring together those with and without special needs for fun and hopefully a better understanding of one another.

Several years ago during a family vacation, Morgan was in the hotel swimming pool wanting to toss around a ball with other kids at the other end of the pool. Sensing there was something “different” about Morgan, the kids took their ball and exited the pool. I’ll never forget the look of anguish on Morgan’s face.  Right then and there, I determined there had to be a way to bring individuals together in a safe, colorful, inclusive environment devoid of barriers.

2. Tell us about your daughter Morgan and how your love has inspired the work that you do.

Morgan epitomizes unconditional love. Despite her cognitive and physical challenges, she’s always waving, smiling, laughing, high-fiving, and making new friends. The successes of Morgan’s Wonderland and new Morgan’s Inspiration Island have thrust her into the spotlight to an even greater degree, but she teaches us all a lesson by taking everything in stride. She truly is the inspiration for all of our efforts to promote inclusion and help those with special needs, and she will continue to inspire us as we explore additional ways to carry out our mission.

3. What challenges or considerations had to go into constructing a fully-accessible water park?

The overriding challenge was to create a water park in which everyone can fully participate in the fun. Just like Morgan’s Wonderland, the creation of Morgan’s Inspiration Island truly was a team effort. I brought together passionate people with great ideas for meeting the needs of people young and older with special needs in an aquatic environment.  I called on doctors, therapists, special-ed teachers, parents of special-needs children and caregivers, to name just a few. I took their ideas and then worked with various experts and suppliers in the water-park industry to transform dreams into the reality that is now Morgan’s Inspiration Island.

4. You’ve called Morgan’s Inspiration Island a “park of inclusion.” Explain what that means to you.

Inclusion and accessibility are two of the most important words in our vocabulary.  By making Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island ultra-accessible, people with physical or cognitive difficulties can fully participate in all that we have to offer, just like those who don’t have disabilities. This is inclusion in action. I truly believe our inclusivity and accessibility inspire guests to do things previously thought not to be in their range of capabilities.

A quick example: our wheelchair swings have afforded so many guests the simple-yet-exhilarating thrill of soaring through the air. A thematic element all over Morgan’s Wonderland is the butterfly; just like butterflies, our guests with special needs can emerge from their cocoons, spread their wings and soar at Morgan’s Wonderland. My dream is for everyone who enters Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island to be treated to an outstanding guest experience that exceeds their expectations and lifts their spirits.

4. What are you most proud of? What drives you to keep moving forward?

I’m so proud of the fact that more and more attention is being focused on the special-needs community, for too long a neglected segment of our society.

In the research leading up to the construction of Morgan’s Wonderland, I traveled across America to see if I could find a theme park like Morgan’s Wonderland already existence. I couldn’t find such a park. During my travels, I noticed that the vast majority of facilities serving special-needs individuals tended to be in obscure locations, out of sight and thus out of mind. So I built Morgan’s Wonderland in a very visible location in northeast San Antonio at the intersection of two major thoroughfares just a half-mile away from a busy interstate highway. I do believe our efforts to help those with special needs are making a difference, yet there’s so much more that needs to be done. That’s what keeps me moving forward.

5. What’s next? Are you cooking up any new ways to innovate in the accessibility space?

Next up with be construction of a larger school building for The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, our school for students with special needs ages 12 to 24 next to Morgan’s Wonderland. One of the bonuses of going to school at The Academy is that you get to do your physical education in a theme park! How cool is that?

Right now, The Academy is maxed out at approximately 50 students; we plan to more than double the school’s capacity. We’re also in the development stage of what I’m referring to as a socialization center for young adults with special-needs. This will afford opportunities to interact with other young adults as well as to involve them in continuing education and service projects. The emphasis will be on keeping these young adults active.

We also envision incorporating medical and dental facilities for the treatment of these individuals and the training of doctors, dentists and nurses. Medical care and dentistry for special-needs individuals are specialties not readily available in medical, dental or nursing schools across the country.

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