Mario Wright suddenly and somewhat mysteriously lost the use of his legs after falling into a coma in 2009, and with that he lost the ability to play the sports he had always loved.
Soon after he moved to San Antonio in 2016, boredom pushed him to start looking for sports opportunities and he found the South Texas Regional and Para Sports program for wheelchair teams in softball, basketball, and other sports.
“I was a competitive person and when I couldn’t play sports and I got into the wheelchair, I was like, ‘What can I do now since I can’t play sports?’” Wright said.
Wright is one athlete who has found a new world of sports and a community of friends in the program based at Morgan’s Wonderland, where a new sports facility gives a better and permanent place for the teams that were formed at Morgan’s Wonderland back in 2012. Before the June opening of Morgan’s Wonderland Sports, the teams had been using parking lots and various gyms for their practices and games.
Although the coronavirus pandemic caused delays, the Morgan’s Wonderland group of inclusive play places has been expanding at a rapid pace. The sports facility was completed last year but could not fully open to the public until June. A family camp officially opens to the public later this fall, and another new facility is scheduled to open next year.
The 3-acre Morgan’s Wonderland Sports facility has five tennis courts that can also double as pickleball courts, two softball fields, and a covered basketball pavilion that can also be used for volleyball or as an event space.
“It’s a tennis court-type surface that makes it accessible for all abilities, whether you’re running, walking, using a walker, a wheelchair, a power chair,” Brooke Matula, recreation therapy director for Morgan’s Wonderland, said of the facility. “It’s all flat and it’s ultra-accessible, and that means you can adapt pretty much anything to be able to play that sport.”
Thirteen sports are offered at the Morgan’s Sports facility under two types of sports programs: one for Paralympic-style wheelchair teams, known as STRAPS, and the Inclusive Sports program, which is for athletes with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
The facility is also available to the general public five days a week for open play. Those with disabilities get in free and everyone else pays a nominal fee.
“From a financial side of things, we want to knock down as many barriers as we can for [people with disabilities] to be provided recreation and to have fun,” Matula said. “It’s already so hard to get involved in things because you may sound different or look different or may need something different. But we [want] to provide programs to maximize your potential, and that’s primarily what we focus on here with our sports programs, because we want to highlight what you can do, not what you can’t do.”
Helping athletes discover just how much they can do has been a life-changing experience for so many of them, often giving them a new purpose and reason to get out the door, Matula said.
Initially Wright was looking for a basketball team but got involved with the softball team and found he had a talent for the sport, which has taken him all the way to the Wheelchair Softball World Series three times in the past few years.
“I just fell in love with it,” Wright said. “The competitiveness came back, the love of the game came back. It’s just like having another family.”
If the teams are like a family for the athletes, Matula said the new accessible facility is the home they have needed for years.
“It’s created a home for somebody to know that this is a safe and a welcoming place to learn something different and just try your best and we’ll coach you through the rest if you’re willing to put in the work,” Matula said.
In September, the sports facility will host the Texas Special Olympics Summer Games.
The opening of the sports complex and the campground brings the Morgan’s Wonderland locations to a total of five, including the original theme park, the water park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, and the new Multi Assistance Center (MAC), which is under construction and set to open in 2022. All of the facilities are now operated under the umbrella of the Morgan’s Wonderland Inclusion Foundation, which was created in 2020.
The Morgan’s Wonderland Sports complex is only about a mile up the road from the theme park and water park; the campground is farther north of San Antonio on Cibolo Vista Road.
Leslie Mouton, marketing director for Morgan’s Wonderland, said the campground is currently only open to organizations that have a prearranged partnership with Morgan’s Wonderland, but in the fall it will be opening up for weekend family camps. Eventually, Mouton said, the goal will be for groups to be able to host their own camp programs at the campground and for Morgan’s Wonderland to offer its own slate of camps.
The new campground has 25 cabins with an ability to host 525 campers; a zipline that can accommodate campers of any ability, including those with oxygen tanks; a climbing wall with a pulley system that enables everyone the opportunity to experience climbing; a challenge course designed for every level of ability; and stables offering horse riding experiences.
The San Antonio Food Bank operates the kitchen at the campground, which Mouton said also gives the organization a convenient location to prepare and distribute meals for underserved communities on the north side of town.
Mouton said the next new Morgan’s Wonderland location on the horizon, MAC, will not be a playground like the other facilities. Instead it will be focused on giving people with disabilities a place to receive medical services, physical therapy, and social services all in one location and at one time.
Details are still in the works for MAC and Mouton said more information will be released next year as the opening date approaches, which is currently scheduled for July 2022.