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Fun for all: Theme park aims toward visitors with special needs

Altoona Mirror

Original Article »

May 28, 2011

The carousel has chariots for wheelchairs. Braille games decorate side panels on the jungle gym. And table-high sandboxes allow just about any kid to build a castle.

Morgan's Wonderland aims to offer everything a special-needs guest might enjoy at a theme park - while appealing to non-disabled visitors too.

"If it wasn't for searching Google," founder Gordon Hartman said, "it would've taken me a lot longer to put this together."

The result is both inventive and heartwarming: a 25-acre, $34 million park catering every detail to people with physical or mental disabilities, down to jungle gyms wide enough to fit two wheelchairs side-by-side, a "Sensory Village" that's an indoor mall of touch-and-hear activities, and daily attendance limits so the park never gets too loud or lines too long.

Since opening last year, Morgan's Wonderland has attracted more than 100,000 guests, despite almost no national marketing by the non-profit park. Admission for people with special needs is free, and adults accompanying them are $10.

Three out of every four visitors do not have disabilities.

The park is the first of its kind in the nation, according to Hartman, a San Antonio philanthropist who named the place after his 17-year-old daughter, who can't perform simple math and struggles to form sentences because of cognitive disabilities. A map in the lobby entrance, where adults with special needs volunteer as greeters, offers a more visual way to gauge the park's early popularity, with the 49 states and 16 countries visitors have come from marked in purple.

Persons with autism, orthopedic impairments, mental retardation or seizure disorders are among the most regular visitors. Tifani Jackson's 11-year-old son, Jaylin, has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes learning disabilities and developmental delays.

Jaylin was showing off his new hat from the gift shop. Now he was coaxing his mom back toward the off-road adventure ride, where rugged-looking jeeps that are wheelchair accessible turn through a short track.

"It's so nice to have a place like this," said Jackson, who lives in nearby Austin.

Built on the site of an abandoned quarry, Morgan's Wonderland is one-tenth the size of SeaWorld, the destination mega-attraction on the other side of San Antonio. But spending an afternoon at Morgan's Wonderland - the average guest stays about 2 to 3 hours - is deliberately designed to not be an exhausting, endless trudge from one overcrowded ride to the next.

Generously spread out, the park has about 20 attractions from active (Butterfly Playground) to easygoing (a train circling a mile-long loop through the park and around a lake). Even more tranquil is the Sitting Garden, a quiet and almost meditative enclave that's a favorite among parents with autistic children.

Inside Sensory Village is a mechanic's shop with tools mounted to a low table. A light touch of the drill triggers the crank-like sound of a bolt driving flush into an engine block. Next door is a pretend supermarket with plastic lobsters, ears of corn and cans of tuna, and cashiers who always hand back the right amount of invisible change.

Most interactive is a low-lit space with a touch-sensitive floor, giving the illusion of walking across a pond as the water ripples and colors burst with every step. White canvases on the walls, meanwhile, transform into butterflies chasing a shadow anytime someone steps in front of the projector.

Sprouting from the sandboxes are "diggers" - think shovels and rakes - that can be operated sitting down from a wheelchair. Another nearby sandbox is elevated 4 feet, next to a musical garden of giant xylophones and chimes. The chariots on the carousel are reserved for wheelchairs, and many of the horses are fitted with high back cushions for children who need the support.

Reservations are encouraged because of the daily attendance limits, though as general manager Dave Force put it, "we're not going to turn away a family that's driven all the way from Arkansas." Each guest is also given an electronic wristband that allows families and caregivers to keep tabs, and scanning the wristbands on some rides emails a free photo back home.

Yet despite being completely designed for individuals with special needs, the park is playful enough to be enjoyed by any kid. The motto of Morgan's Wonderland is even "Where Everyone Can Play." That inclusion was important to Hartman, who on a family trip a few years ago, saw his daughter Morgan wanting to play with three kids tossing a ball in a pool but could not interact. The kids, unsure how to interact with Morgan, stopped playing.

Five years later, Morgan's Wonderland opened, putting regular playground swings and swings for wheelchairs in the same park. That's where 9-year-old Kriste was, her wheelchair rolled onto a platform and being swung back and forth by two park volunteers.

"She doesn't talk," said her father, Michael Hernandez, "but you can tell she really enjoys it."


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