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Theme Parks

See inside the first ultra-accessible theme park 'for everybody': Morgan’s Wonderland

“Accessible Travel” is a six-part series focusing on the travel industry’s preparedness to welcome travelers with disabilities. If you'd like to contribute to our future reporting and share your experience as a source, you can.

It takes more than guts to ride a zip line. 

It also takes things many people take for granted, like bodily control and the ability to breathe independently.

But not at , the world’s first “ultra-accessible, fully inclusive” theme park, in San Antonio, Texas.

Its new Rocket’s Sky Flight Adventure features a semi-private loading area for guests who need to transfer out of wheelchairs, specially designed seats and harnesses that can support guests lacking upper body control, a place to hang oxygen tanks right on the ride vehicle, and two operating speeds with extra smooth braking available for guests who may be more fragile. 

All guests use the same type of supportive harness on Rocket’s Sky Flight Adventure, so no one stands out,

“We made sure that (the park) was built for everyone, but with a thought process to ensure that they could enjoy it just like anybody else. That's the key," Morgan’s Wonderland founder Gordon Hartman told 91Ӱ.

More than have some disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Morgan’s Wonderland is setting the bar for the entire attractions industry on inclusion and accessibility.

What is the story behind Morgan's Wonderland?

Guests can roll right onto the Whirling Wonder ferris wheel at Morgan's Wonderland.

Morgan’s Wonderland was inspired by an experience its founder witnessed on a family vacation in 2006.

Hartman's daughter Morgan has a rare condition called , which the National Institutes of Health describes as an overgrowth and intellectual disability syndrome.One of the effects of it in her particular case is her cognitive level is that of about a 4- or 5-year-old,” Hartman explained. 

They were hanging out by a pool when Morgan, then 12, noticed some kids playing with a ball nearby.

“After kind of looking at it for a while, she hit the ball. And when she hit the ball, those children – very nice children – grabbed their ball and got out of the pool real quick,” Hartman recalled. “They were scared. The reason I’m going to use the word scared is because they didn't know why Morgan was reacting or came to them the way she did versus saying, ‘Hey, guys, I just want to play.’ She couldn't verbalize that … That was her way to say, ‘Can I be included?’ “

Morgan Hartman rides the Whirling Wonder ferris wheel with her family on its opening day in 2016.

The interaction stuck with Hartman, who a year earlier had sold his successful real estate empire and decided to spend the second part of his career serving people with disabilities. 

“I started thinking, ‘Well why couldn't we develop a place where those with and without special needs could come together and play in an atmosphere that everybody feels comfortable?’ ” Hartman said. 

Morgan’s Wonderland was created to be that place.

The newer, the better:How wheelchair users can travel smoothly

Is Morgan's Wonderland only for people with disabilities?

Morgan's Wonderland's characters reflect a variety of abilities.

No. Only about 20% of guests have disabilities, like Emma Rodriguez’s daughter Melanie.

“Our 6-year-old has a lot of sensory issues because of her autism, and she's scared of a lot of things, and they pretty much customize this place to fit the entire family.” Rodriguez said on a field trip with her 4-year-old, while Melanie was in school. “The littlest things were so well thought out that it fits everybody.”

Everyone has the same access, but there is one added benefit for guests who aren’t disabled. “It’s a learning opportunity,” Hartman said. 

Guests can see if their wheelchair will fit on the Whirling Wonder at Morgan's Wonderland.

“I think that's amazing because people usually don't understand, especially with autism, you know the meltdowns,” Rodriguez said. “They'll take it as the kid is being bratty, the kid is just not being parented correctly, the kid just needs to get over it. But here, you’re able to see from Down syndrome to physical disabilities to all kinds of disabilities, and you're able to see how well each kid does in every single ride because there's something for everybody.”

Selya Santillan-Masse brought her 2-year-old, Petra, to Morgan’s Wonderland partly for that very reason. “For her to get that experience with other people with special needs and getting her to ask questions respectfully and to not ignore or to point and think like, ‘They're different. That's bad. That's weird.’ but ‘They're different, and I'm different, and here we are having fun.’ ”

“I actually used to be an assistant teacher in a special needs high school classroom, and this is just groundbreaking,” she added. “It's so needed.”

Don't stare:What people with disabilities and their families want fellow travelers to know

How much does it cost to get into Morgan's Wonderland?

Jette's Wonder Bikes is one of four new attractions at Morgan's Wonderland,

Single-day costs $24 for most guests ages 14 to 61. It’s $16 for kids ages 3 to 13 and adults over age 61.

There’s also a bundled rate available for access to both Morgan’s Wonderland and its equally accessible neighboring water park, , which opens for the season on Friday.

Admission to both is free for guests with disabilities. 

Specially trained staff can secure guests on wheelchair swings at Morgan's Wonderland.

“It's been our policy from the beginning, and part of the reason for that is because we don't want that to be an economic barrier,” Hartman said, aware of all the expenses that come along with medical complexities. 

“Morgan is one of the lucky ones because she has the doctors. She has a therapist. She has an incredible caregiver. She has a home that she can live in. She has two loving parents. She has all those different things. That's really truly more of an exception than the rule when it comes to individuals with special needs,” he said. “Morgan shouldn't have those things just because we have means and we have access. Everybody ought to have that.”

How many rides are at Morgan's Wonderland?

Specially designed platforms allow all guests to experience the same thrills in the 4D Cinema.

Morgan’s Wonderland spans 25 acres of San Antonio and features “more than 25 ultra-accessible accessible rides, playscapes, and interactive elements,” according to the park. Only a portion of those are rides, four of which are new this year.

The zip line is the only ride that requires guests to transfer from wheelchairs. Guests can roll right onto other rides like the ferris wheel, train and new 4-D theater. Hartman noted the company that made the 4-D theater had never been asked to make wheelchair accessible motion-simulated platforms before. 

“Before, when someone was in a wheelchair, they just sat and watched,” he said. “We asked them to actually work with us to where we could put a wheelchair on a platform to where those people would have the same feeling. They had been around 30 years and no one had ever asked them to do it. Now they're doing it, they're saying, ‘Hey, we want to do this in other places now.’ That's how it will start to really move forward.”

The new Pirate Island Boat Cruises are very popular.

What’s next for Morgan’s? 

Many other ride manufacturers, theme parks and others have turned to Morgan’s Wonderland for guidance on accessibility and inclusion since the park’s opening in 2010. Just this year Hartman, his wife Maggie, and daughter Morgan were inducted into the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions Hall of Fame. 

But Morgan’s, the nonprofit organization behind the Morgan’s Wonderland, is looking at an even bigger picture. In addition to the park and water park, it’s started a , , and , which helps people with disabilities with a variety of needs. It’s working on opening an ambulatory surgical center, a care facility for kids with acute needs, a fitness center, and an institute to teach outside groups how to become more accessible.

People have come from all over the world to visit Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio.

In years to come, it’s planning to open the first of what it hopes will be a series of fully “accessorized” hotels that are open to all but specifically designed to accommodate access needs in every room. It’s also in talks to open a second Morgan’s Wonderland, which would be built by Morgan’s but operated by another company.

“We don't think of this only as a moment,” Hartman said. “We think of this almost as a movement now.”

The reporter on this story received access to the park from Morgan's and Visit San Antonio. 91Ӱ maintains editorial control of reviews.

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