While on a family vacation, Morgan Hartman, who was born with cognitive and physical disabilities, went to engage with children in a hotel swimming pool. At the time, she was 12 years old but had the cognitive capability of a young child. She approached the children and nonverbally hit their ball.
"The children were a little bit questioning of her," says Bob McCullough, communications director at Morgan's Wonderland. "They took their ball and scurried out of the pool."
Morgan's father, Gordon Hartman, a former home builder, still remembers the look of dismay on his daughter's face.
"Gordon thought there has to be a better way to bring together those with and without specials needs, so they can understand each other and achieve some common ground," he says. "And he felt the way to do that was in a fun environment."
In 2010, four years after the pool incident, Hartman and his wife, Maggie, opened Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, the only waterpark in the world designed to completely accommodate special needs individuals. Then, in 2017, they opened a second waterpark next door called Morgan's Inspiration Island.
The parks are ultra-accessible, meaning though they accommodate everyone, there are absolutely no barriers for anyone with a special need. Those with a cognitive or physical disability simply say so at the entrance, and they are welcomed free of charge.
In many ways, the parks are similar to other waterparks and feature food outlets, colorful splash pads and water rides. But there are some key differences: support facilities, a wheelchair valet and, most notably, revolutionary waterproof wheelchairs.
A collaboration between the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh led to the development of a waterproof wheelchair powered by compressed air. The only one of its kind, McCullough hopes the technology will one day spread beyond the waterpark.
You can surely measure the parks' success in the numbers — they have welcomed well over a million guests since 2010 from all 50 states and 70 other countries. But McCullough is largely not interested in figures. "Total attendance is not our measure of success," he says. "We are more interested in qualitative rather than quantitative success."
Qualitative data is easy to collect. It is seen in the splashes, smiles and laughter — in the joy of the parents, guardians and caretakers of park-goers. Everywhere, people of all different capabilities play together in harmony. Differences fade into common ground.
"Our symbol is the butterfly," adds McCullough. "When you come to Morgan's Wonderland and Morgan's Inspiration Island, like a butterfly, you can spread your wings and soar to new heights that you thought were not possible."