Gordon Hartmans and his daughter Morgan during the Special Olympics Torch Relay at Morgan's Wonderland.
Gordon Hartman and his daughter Morgan raise a torch during the Special Olympics Torch Relay at Morgan's Wonderland in 2016. Credit: Courtesy / Morgan's Wonderland

It’s not because children with special needs and their families could suddenly enjoy riding a carousel that made Morgan’s Wonderland a place of inclusion and the park’s founder a man of vision and heart.

It’s because they could do it together.

That’s the vision behind the world’s first ultra-accessible theme park, founded by former local homebuilder Gordon Hartman, and why Morgan’s Wonderland has established San Antonio as a model for inclusion while the nation comes to terms with its growing diversity following a divisive election.

“I’m somewhat concerned about the discussions that are occurring and the thought of not bringing about inclusion for everybody, because I believe everybody ought to have opportunity,” Hartman said.

“I get concerned when people publicly downgrade those with special needs. If people in certain positions do not give adequate attention and help (in) joining us in inclusion of special needs, then we’re taking a big step backward. What makes America great is that we’ve been inclusive for so long.”

So Hartman, 53, keeps moving forward, often working 12-hour days – gladly he says – to accomplish his goals. In addition to “aggressively” supporting area nonprofits that assist those with special needs through the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, he’s actively involved in developing programs and other attractions at the park like the recent addition of a five-story Ferris wheel, the Whirling Wonder.

The entrance to Morgan's Wonderland. Photo by Scott Ball.
The entrance to Morgan’s Wonderland. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Construction is also underway on Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a $15 million accessible splash park projected to open at the park in the spring of 2017. H-E-B recently contributed $2 million toward the park, joining philanthropist-businessmen Harvey Najim and Bill Greehey, as well as the J.E. and L.E. Mabee, Will Smith, Valero, and Methodist Healthcare Ministries foundations and others in supporting the effort.

Hartman also has plans to build a new, three-story facility for The Academy, a nationally-accredited school for children with special needs that opened in 2011, as well as dental and socialization centers for children and young adults with special needs.

To keep costs down, Hartman serves as the general contractor on these projects, and while he says building something is easy, “operating it is difficult, especially for what we do.”

Lately, Hartman has also focused time on working with legislators, including Texas House Speaker Joe Straus, State Sen. José Menendez (D-26) and State Rep. Diego Bernal (D-123) on looming state budget cuts for schools serving children with special needs. “I think we are going to win that one,” he said.

It’s personal for Hartman, of course. For most in San Antonio, the inspiration behind Hartman’s work and Morgan’s Wonderland is a household name. Born with a number of physical and cognitive disabilities, Hartman’s daughter, 23-year-old Morgan and her endearing grin have had a starring role in park ads since it opened. And though she likely can’t comprehend the role she has played in the development of the park that bears her name, Hartman says she is no less the enduring inspiration.

“She is the reason for everything I do – where my energy level comes from. Even though she’s been through so much, she has this attitude that is so strong and so positive and upbeat,” Hartman explained. “She’s been blessed in so many ways and now our job is to help the millions of others who have special needs, and it’s a true blessing to be given the opportunity.”

For his philanthropic generosity as much as his success in business, Hartman was recently inducted into the elite Texas Business Hall of Fame alongside his good friend Charles Cheever, chairman emeritus of Broadway Bank.

But he takes little time to celebrate. “There’s so much need out there, we could do 50 times what we’re doing now, and we wouldn’t even be scratching the surface,” Hartman said.

His mantra remains inclusion in everything he does.

Hartman is proud that Morgan’s Wonderland has had a far greater impact on San Antonio than just bringing smiles to the faces of special needs children or even sparking the momentum for bringing Major League Soccer to the city.

Toyota Field. Photo by Scott Ball.
Toyota Field. Photo by Scott Ball.

“I think it’s brought focus and attention on special needs in a positive way, and it’s brought a culture and a thought process that San Antonio is a very compassionate city that cares about people with special needs,” Hartman said. “It expresses to others around the world that San Antonio has something a little special.”

What started off as a small, $10-million project at a former quarry is now at least partly responsible for San Antonio’s newest moniker – Inclusive City USA.

“Morgan’s Wonderland adds to that in a big way.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.