Morgan’s Inspiration Island, the water park located at Morgan’s Wonderland, the world’s first ultra-inclusive theme park designed with people who have special needs in mind, has been named to Time Magazine’s first annual list of World’s Greatest Places.

To create the list of the world’s greatest places, Time solicited nominations across a variety of categories, including hotels, restaurants, parks, and museums, and evaluated each one based on key factors such as originality, innovation, sustainability, and influence. The result is a list spanning 48 countries on six continents.

Austin’s Central Library is the only other Texas destination to make Time‘s list.

The 25-acre water park in Northeast San Antonio opened in 2017 and offers five splash pads, a river boat ride, and an opportunity for people of all abilities to have fun at a place where no attraction is off-limits.

“You won’t find a park like this anywhere else in the world,” said Bob McCullough, communications director at Morgan’s Inspiration Island. “We are unlike a typical theme park. Our measure of success is not how many people come through the gate. We want people to come and have a great experience, which will hopefully lead to lasting memories. That’s the real test as to whether we are successful or not.”

The idea for the inclusive theme park came about after Gordon and Maggie Hartman’s daughter Morgan, who suffers from physical and cognitive disabilities, struggled to make friends during family vacations. In 2015, they established the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to develop programs that help children and adults like Morgan feel a sense of inclusion.

Since opening in 2010, Morgan’s Wonderland has welcomed more than 1 million people from all 50 states and 70 countries throughout the world, McCullough said.

In June, Mari Radillo made the 12-hour drive from Kansas City, Missouri, to Morgan’s Wonderland with her three children. Her 8-year old son, Yandel, suffers from spina bifida and uses a wheelchair to move at all times. Radillo told the Rivard Report on Monday that there is nothing similar to Morgan’s Wonderland near where she lives.

“We have a theme park here locally, but a lot of people are not familiar with what someone in a wheelchair can or cannot do, so a lot of the time my son is told that he is not allowed to do things that he is physically able to do,” Radillo said. “We wanted to take him to a place where no one told him that he couldn’t do something.”

The entrance to Morgan's Wonderland. Courtesy of Morgan's Wonderland.
The entrance to Morgan’s Wonderland. Credit: Courtesy / Morgan's Wonderland

Each of the theme parks more than two dozen attractions is designed to accommodate the space and personal equipment park attendees need, including a hot air balloon Ferris wheel, wheelchair swings, a train, and a river barge, which are all wheelchair-friendly.

“It was so neat. We had never seen anything like it,” Radillo said.

The most coveted part of the park, according to both McCullough and Radillo, is the wheelchair valet, which allows guests to exchange their electric wheelchair for a custom-designed waterproof one that can be used throughout Inspiration Island.

“We have many guests who cannot afford to get their chair wet, and this is particularly true when you have a chair with batteries and electronics,” McCullough said. “If you come to the wheelchair valet, we help you transfer out of your personal chair and into the waterproof one so [the person] can go and splash and have just as much fun as everyone else.”

For Radillo, the wheelchair valet offered peace of mind during a time meant to be fun and relaxing for the entire family. “They asked a lot of questions and really made [my son] feel comfortable before giving him another wheelchair. He was able to have fun, and we didn’t have to worry about what happened if the chair got wet and how we would take care of it while on vacation,” she said.

While Yandel’s chair is not electric and has no mechanical parts, Radillo said the accommodations the park made that allowed her son to participate like a “normal kid” relieved stress for the entire family.

“Everyone had a good time. My 3-year-old daughter [who does not have special needs] was playing on everything alongside her brother,” Radillo said. “Usually one of them will be able to do something that the other one can’t do, but they were able to enjoy the same things at the same time, and we could all be together as a family.”

Diego Guzmán age 14 wipes water from his eyes the new waterpark at Morgan's Inspiration Island.
Diego Guzmán plays at the waterpark at Morgan’s Wonderland Inspiration Island, which opened in June 2017. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report

Yandel said that his favorite part of the theme park was Inspiration Island, because there are water slides and a “big bucket where you pick up a lot of water and drop it on yourself.” Asked what it was like being around people of all abilities, he said it was “comforting.”

Seeing people exceed their own expectations is “the most exciting thing to see at Morgan’s Wonderland,”  McCullough said. “Those with cognitive of physical special needs or disabilities come here and have the time of their lives and do more than they thought they would accomplish. Our symbol is the butterfly, and it has a lot of meaning: We want people, especially those with special needs, to spread their wings and soar to heights that they thought were unattainable.”

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza

Roseanna Garza reports on health and bioscience for the San Antonio Report.