World's first completely wheelchair-accessible theme park, at a nice price

Morgans Wonderland attraction There are 8.3 million disabled children in the U.S. between the ages of 5 and 17 (NHIS, 2007) who have limitations on their physical abilities, and exactly one innovative, 100% wheelchair-accessible theme park designed for special needs.

Morgan's Wonderland, the new, 25-acre attraction in San Antonio, Tex., is devoted to leveling the outdoor playing field for people with disabilities.

"[It's] a special place where anyone can have fun," said Gordon Hartman, founder of the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation and visionary behind the new wheelchair-accessible park, "but it was created with special-needs individuals in mind. We've taken an abandoned rock quarry in northeast San Antonio and transformed it into an outdoor recreation oasis for those of all ages with cognitive and physical challenges."

Ultimately, Hartman said, "Inclusion is the overarching objective." In fact, the theme park is just as helpful for parents who use wheelchairs and would like to participate in the play with their kids.

Inspired by the challenges and spirit of his own 16-year-old daughter, Morgan, who has autism spectrum disorder, Hartman set out to make a change. His passion was contagious, and last month the dream became a reality.

Although Morgan's Wonderland doesn't include death-defying roller coasters or scary "screamers," guests will be able to choose from attractions including the Adventure Ride, in which kids of all ages can "drive" a wheel-chair accessible car around a track (a ride Hartman is encouraging other theme parks to consider installing); a 1930's-style train that travels the perimeter of the lake; therapeutic riding horses at the "stable"; a vintage-style carousel equipped with the usual assortment of horses as well as animals outfitted with seat backs to support guests with low muscle tone, and wheelchair-accessible chariots that go up and down. Sensory Village is an indoor play area that allows aspiring Grand Prix racers to virtually "drive" a cherry red BMW, or experiment with green screen technology to create their own video.

Other recreation experiences include a water play area, complete with shade canopies and cool-water misters to combat the Texas heat; a main playground featuring wheelchair-accessible swings, a play structure with ramps, slides (with controlled speed), a wheelchair-accessible see-saw; an elevated sand box; a wheelchair basketball court; several gardens and "Pirates Wharf," an eight-acre fishing lake with remote-controlled boating and water cannons.

If it all gets a little overwhelming, the park offers the Garden Sanctuary, a quiet place to retreat and rest. Park amenities also include 18 ADA-compliant restrooms, signage in Braille, healthy snacks at reasonable prices, free parking, and the green light to bring in your own food and drinks.

In addition, the designers wanted to establish safeguards for families worried about wandering kids. Guests each receive Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) wrist bands that track visitors within the park. Families can use one of five kiosks throughout the park to swipe their wrist band and find each member of their party on the touch screen. Another plus: kids are not allowed to leave the completely enclosed park unless accompanied by an adult with a matching RFID.

So how much should parents expect to shell out for all this thoughtful planning, innovation and accessibility? The answer might surprise you. People with special needs are admitted for free and each accompanying friend and family member pays $5. If a party does not include a special needs guest, admission is $15 dollars each. Reservations are strongly recommended. Go to www.morganswonderland.com, or call 210-637-3434.

The park has a capacity of 1,000 people, so if you have not registered ahead of time and just show up at the gates, you may not get in.

No one's trying to get rich here. In fact, the park operates as a non-profit called SOAR (Sports and Outdoor Recreation) and according to Dream Come True: An Amusement Park for Special Needs Kids, by Hannah Diller of Parent: Wise Austin, 60% of the staff will be volunteers. Paul T. Shattuck, Ph.D., reported in a 2008 study published in the Journal of Pediatrics that the overall percentage of U.S. families caring for children with special needs experience an added financial burden of 91.2 %. Other studies have estimated that the cost of raising a special needs child is three times that of an average child.

Morgan's Wonderland is subsidized by the nearby STAR (South Texas Area Regional) Soccer Complex. The venue offers 14 lighted soccer fields for tournaments, instructional clinics and special events. Proceeds from STAR benefit the operation and maintenance of Morgan's Wonderland.

Although there are other vacation destinations specializing in guests with special needs, such as Moody Gardens, a 242-acre wheelchair-accessible nature park in Galveston, Tex., the Schlitterbahn water parks and Vacation Village in Kansas City, Kans., and South Padre Island, Tex., that both feature a "Transportainment" floating system; and the Zion Ponderosa Ranch Resort in Utah -- there was nothing like Morgan's Wonderland. Until now.

Hartman hopes, it will be the first of many, "Our vision is to play a pivotal role in helping establish more ultra-accessible family fun parks throughout the nation." Party on.

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