During a family vacation, a father was heartbroken to see other children walking away from his daughter, shattering her trust. Shortly after that day, he decided to build a $35 million theme park for his little girl where she wouldn’t feel out of place.
Did other kids ever make you feel uncomfortable when you were a kid? It is not uncommon for children to isolate and bully a child who they believe is not part of their social circle. Children tend to bully the unconfident child around them.
For parents, it becomes difficult to see their child being bullied. They immediately raise their voice against the bully and ensure that their child no longer feels threatened. The man in today’s story felt similar emotions seeing his daughter feel uncomfortable around children, but came up with an unusual idea to deal with bullies.
As Gordon Hartman was enjoying his vacation with his family, he was heartbroken to see other children leave when his then 12-year-old daughter Morgan entered the pool. The children quickly dispersed when Morgan tried to talk to them.
The little girl didn’t know why the children didn’t want to be around her, but Hartman understood everything. He felt bad seeing Morgan feel uncomfortable in a public space.
Gordon Hartman. | Source: youtube.com/CBS Evening News
Morgan was a child with special needs. She was on the autism spectrum and her brain functioned like the mind of a five-year-old. Hartman felt other kids were turning away from Morgan because they didn’t know how to communicate with a girl with cognitive delay.
THE BIG DECISION
After noticing how other children were interacting with her daughter, Hartman began looking for public spaces that catered to children with special needs. Soon he realized that such places did not exist.
Hartman held several meetings with engineers, doctors and therapists to turn his dream into reality.
If Hartman wanted his daughter to enjoy swimming in a pool without feeling out of confidence around other children, he felt he had to build such a place himself.
FEEL THE PAIN OF OTHERS
Besides being an amazing father, Hartman was also someone who cared for people with disabilities. Understanding their pain, he decided to help them by selling his house building business in 2005.
He created “The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation” with the money he received to help people with disabilities. After the horrific incident at the pool, Hartman decided to build a theme park where people wouldn’t judge Morgan and make her feel uncomfortable. He said:
“We wanted a theme park where everyone could do it all, where people with and without special needs could play.”
Hartman held several meetings with engineers, doctors and therapists to turn his dream into reality. He even consulted parents of children with disabilities to find out what they wanted from the theme park.
After the planning phase was complete, Hartman asked his team to build the theme park on 25 acres of unused land in San Antonio, Texas. Construction began in 2007 and was completed in 2010. Hartman said:
“It’s about not letting anyone feel different. That’s what we tried to do with this park.”
Hartman welcomed everyone to his theme park, Morgan’s Wonderland. He did not limit the park to people with disabilities because he wanted children like his daughter to interact freely with other children.
The theme park made the Ferris wheel accessible to people with disabilities and had a fully accessible mini train and an adventure play area. People with disabilities didn’t have to worry about not having access to the rides, as Hartman made sure every ride was easy for them.
Plus, Morgan’s Wonderland offered wristbands to its visitors, so it was easy to keep track of them. This made life easier for parents of autistic children as they feared losing their children in overcrowded spaces.
A NEW ADDITION
Attendance showed that Morgan’s Wonderland was a huge success. More than a million people have visited the San Antonio-based theme park since it opened and have shared positive reviews about it.
In 2017, Hartman opened another part of the theme park called Morgan’s Inspiration Island, at a cost of $17 million. It featured a water park for children with disabilities as well as other children.
Looking at the number of visitors, people might think that Hartman has made a lot of money from the parks, but the truth is that they are operating at a loss. According to Hartman, parks lose a million dollars a year.
Morgan’s Wonderland and Morgan’s Inspiration Island relied heavily on donations and fundraising. Donors have contributed to its operations, allowing children with disabilities access to water park rides and facilities that they otherwise would not be able to enjoy.
When Hartman took Morgan to the specially designed carousel at the theme park, the girl was confused as she watched the animals ride up and down. Hartman recalled:
“First she was standing close to him, then she was riding an animal, but we weren’t starting it. It was a slow process, but now she loves going for it.”
When the world didn’t care about children with disabilities and special needs, Hartman stood up and built accessible parks for them. He sympathized with these children because his daughter also faced similar challenges being on the autism spectrum.
For parents of disabled children, Morgan’s Wonderland and Inspiration Island were nothing short of a blessing. They saw Hartman as their children’s savior because he stood up for them and provided a place where they could have fun like other children.
One day a man came to see Hartman in the water park and started crying while holding his hand. When Hartman asked what happened, the man said his child had never played in the water before due to his special needs. Only Morgan’s island of inspiration allowed him to enjoy his time in the pool.
Another couple approached Hartman and shared how grateful they were to him for building Morgan’s Inspiration Island. The couple said:
“So many people told us that this would be an opportunity for our daughter to finally have a place where she didn’t have to sit on the sidelines, she could actually do anything.”
Hartman was relieved to know that people appreciated his sincere efforts. The reviews given by visitors made him believe he had succeeded in his mission to provide a public space where children with disabilities could have the time of their lives.
After people found out how good the parks were, they asked Hartman to open more parks in other areas. They wanted similar parks close to home so they wouldn’t have to travel to Morgan’s Wonderland. Hartman refused their requests and said:
“I know there are a lot of different organizations trying to build something like Morgan’s Wonderland elsewhere and we will continue to work with them.”
Hartman wanted to focus on educating teens with special needs in San Antonio. That didn’t mean he had stopped taking Morgan to the parks. Morgan, a grown girl, was more of a celebrity on her visits because other people wanted to click pictures and chat with her. Hartmann said:
“Morgan knows the park is named after her, but I don’t think she understands the magnitude of what he stands for and how it has changed lives.”
What would you do if you were in Hartman’s shoes? Would you also build a theme park for your daughter like he did? Or would you use the money to do something else for children with disabilities?
Click here to read another story about a cheerleader with Down syndrome who was bullied at a basketball game until the players decided to defend her.