On blazing hot summer afternoon Tuesday, officials welcomed special-needs children and parents into the long-anticipated “oasis of inclusion” that is Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a new water park opening this weekend at Morgan’s Wonderland.

A select group of swimsuited guests provided park workers a test run through the $17 million, tropical-themed island paradise specially designed to accommodate children with cognitive and physical disabilities. Opening day for the fully accessible splash park is set for Saturday, June 17.

Soon enough, the universal appeal of kids and water gave rise to wide grins, squeals and laughter — and a summer day to remember.

Inspiration Island was more than three years in the making, said Gordon Hartman, founder of The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which since 2005 has pursued endeavors benefiting the special-needs community. That was when park-goers began suggesting that a water park would be a welcome addition to Morgan’s Wonderland.

“So we started having some discussions with people about the idea,” Hartman said. “Not ever having done something like this and knowing what we went through to do Morgan’s Wonderland, we knew [adding water] would be complicated, but we didn’t know to what extent. At this point now, I can tell you, ensuring it’s an ultra-accessible park … you add some complications to it. You have to deal with walkers, wheelchairs, those who have visual impairments and cognitive issues, [and] at the same time, make it where it’s an enjoyable park for the entire population.”

Construction on Inspiration Island, which overlooks the theme park’s eight-acre catch-and-release fishing lake, began in January 2016.

The park’s focal point is a seven-story, candy-striped lighthouse with a rotating beacon that can be seen from the nearby highway up to a half-mile away.

Hartman said many of the same people who helped design and develop Inspiration Island also were involved in developing Morgan’s Wonderland, inspired by Hartman and his wife Maggie’s 23-year-old daughter with special needs, Morgan.

“The key thing here is ultra-accessibility,” Hartman said. “That is, we want to ensure that we continue what was started over there in that it has continued to grow and progress every year, and people recognizing that everybody coming together to play is important to us.”

Over a million people from 66 countries have visited Morgan’s Wonderland since it opened seven years ago.

“We hear stories almost every day saying, the child I’m a caregiver for has never done this,” Hartman said. “As we began our testing, for example, we recognized after having some of the most acute special needs [individuals] here in the park — people on oxygen, people on [tracheostomy tubes], children with minimal strength — all had the opportunity to enjoy the park. They will enjoy it alongside someone with no special needs, and that is in effect accomplishing what we set out to do.”

Like Morgan’s Wonderland, every Inspiration Island element is wheelchair-accessible, and waterproof wristbands with radio-frequency identification technology are available so parents can keep track of their children and other members of their party. At Rainbow Reef, one of the park’s water play areas, the water can be conditioned to a warmer temperature so guests with sensitivity to cold can still splash and play. Spacious private dressing areas allow guests to transfer out of their wheelchairs and into waterproof wheelchairs provided by the park.

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

Inspiration Island features a River Boat Adventure ride that twists and turns for more than five minutes through a jungle setting with bird and animal sounds in the background. To ease fear of the unknown, television sets near the entrance to the ride give park-goers a preview before they embark.

Five brightly-colored water play areas — Hang 10 Harbor, Rainbow Reef, Shipwreck Island, Harvey’s Hideaway Bay, and Calypso Cove — offer a variety of splashy elements such as raintrees, falls, pools, geysers, jets, water cannons, and a giant tipping bucket.

Other facilities include the Rusty Anchor Galley Grub and Little Italy Bistro food outlets for snacks and beverages, the Surf Shack Gifts and Gear sundries shop offering sunscreen and souvenirs, a panoramic viewing deck, an air-conditioned party and meeting room, and private cabanas for rent.

All water and mechanical equipment for the park is stored beneath the ground in huge underground concrete tanks, and is filtered continuously and recirculated.

“It took us months and months just to come out of the ground here,” Hartman said of the construction process.

Major sponsors of the park include Whataburger, the Najim Family Foundation and H-E-B.

Inspiration Island’s opening-day hours are scheduled from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission to the park is available initially to individuals and families who have purchased 2017 Morgan’s Wonderland memberships. Members must pre-register on a first-come, first-served basis until the park reaches capacity. More information is available on the Morgan’s Wonderland website.

Following the grand opening, the park will be open daily throughout the summer until mid-August and then on weekends through September.

Inspiration Island joins the growing family destination in the old Longhorn Quarry, now known as Wonderland, Texas, that includes the 25-acre Morgan’s Wonderland; The Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, a school for students with special needs; and the Children’s Rehabilitation Institute of TeletonUSA.

In December 2015, Hartman sold the nearby Toyota Field, home of the San Antonio FC soccer club, to the City of San Antonio and Bexar County. All proceeds from the sale went directly to Morgan’s Wonderland.

A boy enjoys the waterslide at shipwreck mountain at the new waterpark Morgan's Inspiration Island.
A boy enjoys the water slide in the shipwreck island section of the new water park Morgan’s Inspiration Island. Credit: Hannah Whisenant / San Antonio Report
Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the business beat reporter at the San Antonio Report.