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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Father builds theme park for special needs children... and names it after his own precious daughter

By Daily Mail Reporter

Fabian Mendoza whoops with delight as he rides a carousel at Morgan's Wonderland. The disabled are allowed into the park for free, while tickets for those with them cost just $10

It's the theme park with a difference. Queues are deliberately kept short, attendance is restricted so there's not too much noise and it there's no gaudy advertising promising thrills and adventure.

Yet Morgan's Wonderland in Texas has proven a huge hit since it opened last year, attracting just the right number of visitors from 16 countries across the globe and from every American state except one.

The difference? Morgan's Wonderland is aimed squarely at children with disabilities, even if three out of every four of the people who pass through its gates are able bodied.

The carousel has chariots for wheelchairs. Braille games decorate side panels on the jungle gym and table-high sandboxes allow just about any child to build a castle.

Those suffering from autism, orthopaedic problems, the mentally handicapped and children who have seizures are among the most regular visitors.

The park, outside San Antonio, is the first of its kind in the U.S. philanthropist Gordon Hartman named it after Morgan, his 17-year-old daughter, who can't perform simple maths and struggles to form sentences because of cognitive disabilities.

Despite being designed for those with special needs, the park is playful enough to be enjoyed by anyone. Its motto is 'Where Everyone Can Play.'

Refugio Valls enjoys a wheelchair swing, one of 20 attractions at the park. Many are specially designed to allow two wheelchairs to ride side-by-side

That inclusion was important to Mr. Hartman, who watched heartbroken as his daughter tried to join in with three youngsters tossing a ball in a pool but couldn't interact. The children were just as unsure how to involve Morgan, so they simply stopped playing.

The park is one-tenth the size of SeaWorld on the other side of San Antonio. But spending an afternoon at Morgan's Wonderland — the average guest stays about 2 1/2 to 3 hours — is deliberately designed not to be an exhausting, endless trudge from one overcrowded ride to the next.

Reservations are encouraged because of the daily attendance limits, but general manager Dave Force admits, "We're not going to turn away a family that's driven all the way from Arkansas."

Each guest is given an electronic wristband that allows families to keep tabs on their group in the park, and scanning the wristbands on some rides even emails a free photo back home.

Taking Flight, a bronze sculpture of hands and a butterfly is a focal point at the 25-acre San Antonio park which includes live versions of the insects in its Butterfly Playground

'It's so nice to have a place like this,' said Tifani Jackson of Austin, Texas, who visited the park with her son Jaylin who has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes learning disabilities and slows development.

As she spoke, Jaylin, 11, tried to pull her back to the off-road adventure ride, where rugged-looking Jeeps that are wheelchair accessible twist and turn through a short track.

Other attractions at the 25-acre, $34 million park include jungle gyms wide enough to fit two wheelchairs side-by-side, and a Sitting Garden, a quiet and meditative place, that's a favourite among parents with autistic children.

In Sensory Village, an indoor mall of touch-and-hear activities, is a mechanic's shop with tools mounted to a low table. A light touch of the drill triggers the crank-like sound of a bolt driving flush into an engine block. Next door is a pretend supermarket with plastic lobsters, ears of corn and cans of tuna, and cashiers who always hand back the right amount of invisible change.

A specially adapted train slowly takes visitors on a mile-long loop around a lake, one of the favourite attractions at the park

Most interactive is a low-lit space with a touch-sensitive floor, giving the illusion of walking across a pond as the water ripples and colours burst with every step. White canvases on the walls, meanwhile, transform into butterflies chasing a shadow any time someone steps in front of the projector.

Sprouting from the sandboxes are shovels and rakes that can be operated sitting down from a wheelchair. Another nearby sandbox is elevated 4 1/2 feet, next to a musical garden of giant xylophones and chimes. The chariots on the carousel are reserved for wheelchairs, and many of the horses are fitted with high back cushions for children who need the support.

When Mr. Hartman first envisioned the park, he could only dream of its success. Now youngsters enjoy such attractions as a regular playground swings and swings for wheelchairs in the same park.

That's where nine-year-old Kriste was on a recent afternoon, her wheelchair rolled onto a platform and being swung back and forth by two park volunteers.

'She doesn't talk,' said her father, Michael Hernandez. 'But you can tell she really enjoys it.'



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