Setting a standard of accessibility, inclusion and fun!
Story by Sarah Farrell
Photos courtesy of Morgan’s Wonderland
Miriam Larson and her family have a checklist every time they visit Morgan’s Wonderland. Ride the carousel … check. Take a lap around the park on the train–in the last car of course, because you get the best view facing backward … check. And finally, spend some time in the air-conditioned sensory village–a popular feature during the sweltering Texas summers.
Larson’s mom, Nicki, works as a life-skills instructional aide at an elementary school in Central Texas. The first time the family visited Morgan’s Wonderland was through a yearly trip with the school, and both Larson and her mom were in awe of what the park had to offer.
“The first time we went, it was really amazing because of the accessibility of everything,” Nicki Larson said. “It’s not like going into Six Flags and it being stressful with the amount of people and the ability to move around.”
Morgan’s Wonderland is an ultra-accessible theme park in San Antonio, Texas. A term used to describe how the park is accessible to anyone of any age and any ability, Chief Operating Officer, Ron Morander, said.
Larson has optic nerve head drusen and began losing her sight three years ago, when she was in fifth grade. She visited the park before and after she lost her sight, and “it’s not much different,” she said, “because there isn’t anything that I can’t do there.”
Morgan’s Wonderland is the only park of its kind in the world. It opened in 2010, and since then has welcomed more than 1.6 million visitors from around the U.S. and the world, including dozens of trips funded each year by the Make-A-Wish Foundation and Project Angel Fares.
Admission to the park is free for anyone with a physical or cognitive disability.
What exactly makes this park ultra-accessible though?
The answer is in the details.
There are features like adaptive swings, some with the ability to strap wheelchairs directly into them, a playground surface that is soft, rubbery and easy to move over and rides that have seamless wheelchair access. Unlike most other theme parks, there is not a separate access point on rides for those in a wheelchair.
“When you’re here and you have a different ability, nobody notices,” Morander said. “It’s just, ‘Okay, we’re here to have fun.’ And that’s the commonality of everything. Everybody likes to play.”
Ashley Rocha, who works as an admissions representative at the welcome center, has been coming to the park as a guest since it opened, and according to Rocha, she’s the only little person on staff. “Morgan’s Wonderland was the first place I could ever go on a playscape with my brothers and just run around with them, and do fun things and not have to worry about having any limitations like at SeaWorld or Fiesta Texas,” she said.
Some rides, like the carousel, have models out front that allow guests to feel the seats and get acquainted before getting on the ride. Guests also have access to RFID wristband trackers, called the GPS Adventure Band, which allow them to keep track of group members as they explore the park. There’s even a 3D park map for those who are visually-impaired like Larson.
What truly sets this park apart is its water park, Morgan’s Inspiration Island, which opened in 2017. It features five splash pads, various water slides and a riverboat adventure ride, all of which are completely accessible, thanks to the park’s fleet of waterproof wheelchairs.
There are seven accessible changing rooms, two with Hoyer lifts, that allow guests to privately transfer out of their chairs into three types of waterproof chairs. The PneuChair–developed by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Human Engineering Research Laboratories (HERL)–uses high-pressure air instead of batteries as an energy source. It gives everyone the ability to enjoy the water park.
Sports Outdoor and Recreation (SOAR)–a nonprofit organization established by the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to oversee Morgan’s Wonderland–worked with the researchers to develop the technology. There are currently only 11 of these chairs in the world, and 10 of them are at Morgan’s Inspiration Island, Morander said. According to the University of Pittsburgh, the team is looking to establish a long-term licensing agreement where the chair could be used in a variety of markets.
“Being able to have someone that has never experienced a water park at all is absolutely amazing,”
Christina Odom, a park employee at the water park wheelchair valet and occupational therapy assistant, said. “There’s a family that came, they traveled in their van with their child hundreds of miles just to come here. Just for the water park.”
Ask anyone who’s visited the park, and they’ll tell you that Morgan’s Wonderland is truly one in a million.
“I think it’s amazing, because there’s not a whole lot of options out there for accessible parks,”
Nicki Larson said. Other parks will help you with accessibility, but “because [Morgan’s Wonderland] is so catered to us, it makes it so much more of a fun experience for the kids and their parents,” she said.
To plan a trip or learn more about the park, visit: https://www.morganswonderland.com/.
Sarah Farrell is a Texas native, digital journalist, avid hiker and tennis fanatic. She’s currently working on her master’s in sports journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
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