Gordon Hartman may just be the world’s greatest dad, after he give up his business to build theme parks for his disabled daughter Morgan.
Left heartbroken when he saw some children refuse to play with his 12-year-old daughter because they didn’t know how to deal with her autism, Gordon decided he wanted to make a change.
The property developer quickly sold his business in 2005 and got to work building Morgan’s Wonderland in 2007.
Opening in 2010, this wonderland became the world’s first ultra-accessible theme park, and this year a sister site called Morgan’s Inspiration Island opened, becoming the first fully accessible water park ever.
Gordon spoke to UNILAD about how the two parks have helped him further his mission of inclusion.
Describing the moment which changed his life, Gordon told us why he decided building a theme park would be the best way to change mindsets towards children with special needs and disabilities.
I will never forget the look of anguish on Morgan’s face when the kids didn’t play with her. I determined there had to be a better way to bring together individuals with and without special needs in a safe, colourful, inclusive environment devoid of barriers.
Thus, the idea for Morgan’s Wonderland was born. Because play is a common denominator it has the power to bring people together.
Initially costing Gordon and his wife Maggie $34 million, Morgan’s Wonderland was built with fully-accessible playgrounds, carousels, miniature trains, a Ferris Wheel and a sensory village among other attractions.
Although the park was designed with special needs individuals in mind, it was built for everyone to enjoy with the aim to bring people together.
For Gordon, the reactions of disabled and special needs children when they visit made the whole experience worth the cost, and so he decided to build a water park as well.
He told UNILAD:
I wanted to further our mission of inclusion. The popularity of Morgan’s Wonderland and a drought several years ago contributed to the addition of a splashing, cooling attraction — Morgan’s Inspiration Island.
Many adaptations make Morgan’s Inspiration Island ultra-accessible. In other words, those with special needs can do as much and have just as much fun as those without disabilities.
A great example is the availability of waterproof wheelchairs. Guests in expensive electric wheelchairs can’t afford to get them wet.
At Morgan’s Inspiration Island, guests can use spacious facilities to transfer out of their wheelchairs into waterproof wheelchairs.
There are plenty of accessible ‘splash pads’ at the park where children can play, and there is even a riverboat ride which has space for wheelchairs in each boat.
Morgan, who will turn 24 in September, deals with both cognitive and physical challenges.
Gordon told us when she visited visited the parks ‘she was smiling and high-fiving guests’, and although it took a while for her to get used to the attractions – Morgan has the mental age of a five-year-old – she loved them.
Because of her cognitive challenges, Morgan can’t fully grasp the fact she’s been a tremendous inspiration for the special needs community.
But she’s the reason we decided to pursue the creation of Morgan’s Wonderland, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland and so much more for people with special needs.
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The Academy is a school for students with special needs located next to Morgan’s Wonderland and is funded by the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation.
The foundation hopes to expand this school in the future but unfortunately it, as well as the parks, relies on much needed funding in order to run.
Gordon told us:
It takes considerable financial resources ($17 million) to build and operate first-class parks like Morgan’s Inspiration Island and Wonderland as well as our Academy.
This is particularly true for our parks because we’re non-profit and admit anyone with a special need free of charge.
In other words, admission revenue alone cannot sustain a park like Morgan’s Inspiration Island for the long-term.
Although Gordon is uncertain about the future of his ventures due to the immense amounts of funding they need, he knows that he is making a difference and hopes that he has inspired others.
We’re truly gratified, and we sincerely hope other parks also will look for ways to add or upgrade attractions for those with special needs.
Together, we are making a difference!
We hope to achieve inclusion. We seek to bring together those with and without disabilities in a safe and non-judgemental environment, for fun and a better understanding of one another.
You can’t deny that Gordon is inspirational, and hopefully with the right amount of funding Morgan’s Wonderland can continue to expand and make a change.
Emily Murray is a journalist at UNILAD. She graduated from the University of Leeds with a BA in English Literature and History before studying for a Masters in Journalism at the University of Salford. Emily has previously worked for the BBC, ITV and Trinity Mirror. When Emily isn’t writing about topics including mental health and entertainment, you can find her at the cinema which is her second home.