Morgan’s Wonderland

26 Aug

The Boatrights of Plano have a new favorite destination, one that rivals Disneyworld in terms of all-around fun for their family. Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first theme park for special-needs kids and adults, opened earlier this month in San Antonio. Carole and Clay Boatright previewed the park with their twin 10-year-old daughters who have autism. Their favorite attraction in the 25-acre venue?

The seesaw.

“It was one of those jaw-dropping moments,” says Mr. Boatright, vice president of the Arc of Texas. “My daughter, Paige, left the Sensory Village and ran to the seesaw. She sat right down behind a girl who was already on it. No one freaked out. There was a sense of independence in that, which was a huge gift to our family.”

At its heart, Morgan’s Wonderland is a father’s gift to his autistic daughter. While on vacation several years ago, developer Gordon Hartman watched Morgan (now 16) struggle to interact with her typical peers. Inspiration ensued. Mr. Hartman decided that children and adults with a range of physical and cognitive challenges needed their own place for outdoor recreation. The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation provided an initial $1 million donation to jumpstart the effort. Public and private funds now top $35 million; the adjacent STAR Soccer Complex, another Hartman project, will help financially support Morgan’s Wonderland.

“It took us 38 months from start to the opening because everything was from scratch,” says Mr. Hartman, who sought advice from the president of nearby SeaWorld in assembling a management team. “From the outset I was impressed with the level enthusiasm from everyone.” During construction, delegations from as far away as Australia and Russia visited the site, an abandoned quarry. Registration and soft-opening visits ran 300 percent above projections.

Guests enjoy an array of entertaining options, from shooting water cannons and catch-and-release fishing to the Sensory Village with its auto fix-it shop, simulated TV station and play grocery store (lobster tank included). The Wonderland Express, meanwhile, departs from a festive depot that looks like a Depression era movie set. Three playgrounds in the center of the park feature five different types of swings, from the traditional tire to high-tech marvels that accommodate wheelchairs. Both the large Water Works play area and the adjacent amphitheatre have ageless appeal.

“I’ve never seen anything like the playground equipment,” says Caitlin Paslay, a UTA junior and nanny to a disabled girl. “The level of thought is remarkable. If a parent in a wheelchair wanted to help his kid down the slide, he or she could go on up there and do it. It’s awesome.”

Ms. Paslay notes the Braille signage as yet another appealing element of inclusion.

Park Director Peter Albarian says the Morgan’s Wonderland crew continues to evaluate and reassess the various attractions with an eye to fine-tuning the experience.

“We know Morgan’s Wonderland is going to look different in a year from now simply because we’re going to learn,” he says. “Right now, we’re still deciding on things like capacity. We don’t want wall-to-wall people here. At the same time, we know the level of interest is very high.” To date, families from 28 states have registered for a visit.

Mr. Albarian says one guiding principle of the park will remain a constant: the emphasis on affordability. Admission for disabled visitors is free. Accompanying family and friends are $5. Guests are encouraged to bring their own food and beverages to enjoy in the picnic area. (A small concession area will sell coffee, soda and some snacks.)

The minimal cost for a day of fun is yet one more reason why the Boatright family plans a repeat visit.

“We had a great experience at Disneyworld, which sets the platinum standard in terms of accommodation for disabilities,” says Mr. Boatright. “What’s so great about Morgan’s Wonderland is that the equation is inverted. There’s no sense of accommodation because that is in the park’s DNA.”

Sidebar: The Off-Road Adventure Ride

Technology meets innovation at Morgan’s Wonderland. A host of state-of-the-art amenities help make the park safer and more accessible for all guests.

RFID Security Bands are any parent’s ally. The Radio Frequency Identification technology in the wristbands work at five kiosks throughout the park. A mother can scan her own bracelet to reveal the exact location of everyone in her party. Secure exits provide additional peace of mind.

Many of the attractions are every bit as inspired. Among the park’s three-dozen swings are several that may be used while staying seated in a wheelchairs. The carousel, designed by Kansas City-based Chance Morgan, takes the concept of universality to new heights. In addition to typical up-and-down animal seats, custom chariots are engineered to replicate the vertical movement. (A stationary horse outside the carousel entrance proves a low-tech spark of genius. Parents can give their wary offspring the experience of sitting on it as preparation for the ride.)

Perhaps the most extraordinary achievement is the Off-Road Adventure Ride. There, a three-quarter-ton truck zips around an 1800-foot track. All guests have an opportunity to join the journey.

“The design was truly a collaborative effort,” says Robert Luna, principal of the San Antonio-based Luna Architecture who oversaw the design of Morgan’s Wonderland. “To accommodate every need we could think of we created a lazy-susan type of platform.” The result: children and adults in wheelchairs can literally roll onto the GMC vehicle. Then buckle up and enjoy the ride!

Resource Box:

Morgan’s Wonderland is located just off I-35 at the intersection of Wurzbach Parkway and Thousand Oaks Drive in northeast San Antonio.

From now until May 28, Morgan’s Wonderland is open from 10-6 on weekends and 10-2 Wednesday through Friday. Summer hours will go longer.

Admission for special-needs guests costs nothing. Accompanying family members and friends pay $5 per person. For parties that do not have anyone with special needs in their group, admission is $15 per person. Advanced registration for all guests is required. Please visit www.MorgansWonderland.com or call 1-877-495-5888 for details.

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