Image: Refugio Valls
Eric Gay  /  AP
Refugio Valls rides a wheelchair swing April 29 at Morgan's Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas. The 25-acre, $34 million park is designed for visitors with physical or mental disabilities.
updated 5/24/2011 3:46:48 PM ET 2011-05-24T19:46:48

The carousel has chariots for wheelchairs. Braille games decorate side panels on the jungle gym. And table-high sandboxes allow just about any kid to build a castle.

Morgan's Wonderland aims to offer everything a special-needs guest might enjoy at a theme park — while appealing to non-disabled visitors too.

"If it wasn't for searching Google," founder Gordon Hartman said, "it would've taken me a lot longer to put this together."

The result is both inventive and heartwarming: a 25-acre, $34 million park catering every detail to people with physical or mental disabilities, down to jungle gyms wide enough to fit two wheelchairs side-by-side, a "Sensory Village" that's an indoor mall of touch-and-hear activities, and daily attendance limits so the park never gets too loud or lines too long.

Since opening last year, Morgan's Wonderland has attracted more than 100,000 guests, despite almost no national marketing by the nonprofit park. Admission for people with special needs is free, and adults accompanying them are $10. Three out of every four visitors do not have disabilities.

The park is the first of its kind in the nation, according to Hartman, a San Antonio philanthropist who named the place after his 17-year-old daughter, who can't perform simple math and struggles to form sentences because of cognitive disabilities. A map in the lobby entrance, where adults with special needs volunteer as greeters, offers a more visual way to gauge the park's early popularity, with the 49 states and 16 countries visitors have come from marked in purple.

'So nice to have a place like this'
Persons with autism, orthopedic impairments, mental retardation or seizure disorders are among the most regular visitors. Tifani Jackson's 11-year-old son, Jaylin, has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that causes learning disabilities and developmental delays.

Jaylin was showing off his new hat from the gift shop. Now he was coaxing his mom back toward the off-road adventure ride, where rugged-looking jeeps that are wheelchair accessible twist and turn through a short track.

"It's so nice to have a place like this," said Jackson, who lives in nearby Austin.

Built on the site of an abandoned quarry, Morgan's Wonderland is one-tenth the size of SeaWorld, the destination mega-attraction on the other side of San Antonio. But spending an afternoon at Morgan's Wonderland — the average guest stays about 2 ½ to 3 hours — is deliberately designed to not be an exhausting, endless trudge from one overcrowded ride to the next.

Generously spread out, the park has about 20 attractions from active (Butterfly Playground) to easygoing (a train circling a mile-long loop through the park and around a lake). Even more tranquil is the Sitting Garden, a quiet and almost meditative enclave that's a favorite among parents with autistic children.

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Inside Sensory Village is a mechanic's shop with tools mounted to a low table. A light touch of the drill triggers the crank-like sound of a bolt driving flush into an engine block. Next door is a pretend supermarket with plastic lobsters, ears of corn and cans of tuna, and cashiers who always hand back the right amount of invisible change.

Most interactive is a low-lit space with a touch-sensitive floor, giving the illusion of walking across a pond as the water ripples and colors burst with every step. White canvases on the walls, meanwhile, transform into butterflies chasing a shadow anytime someone steps in front of the projector.

If you go

Sprouting from the sandboxes are "diggers" — think shovels and rakes — that can be operated sitting down from a wheelchair. Another nearby sandbox is elevated 4 ½ feet, next to a musical garden of giant xylophones and chimes. The chariots on the carousel are reserved for wheelchairs, and many of the horses are fitted with high back cushions for children who need the support.

'Where everyone can play'
Reservations are encouraged because of the daily attendance limits, though as general manager Dave Force put it, "we're not going to turn away a family that's driven all the way from Arkansas." Each guest is also given an electronic wristband that allows families and caregivers to keep tabs on their group in the park, and scanning the wristbands on some rides emails a free photo back home.

Story: Whee! 9 record-breaking theme park thrills

Yet despite being completely designed for individuals with special needs, the park is playful enough to be enjoyed by any kid. The motto of Morgan's Wonderland is even "Where Everyone Can Play." That inclusion was important to Hartman, who on a family trip a few years ago, saw his daughter Morgan wanting to play with three kids tossing a ball in a pool but couldn't interact. The kids, just as unsure how to interact with Morgan, stopped playing.

Five years later, Morgan's Wonderland opened, putting regular playground swings and swings for wheelchairs in the same park. That's where 9-year-old Kriste was on a recent May afternoon, her wheelchair rolled onto a platform and being swung back and forth by two park volunteers.

"She doesn't talk," said her father, Michael Hernandez, "but you can tell she really enjoys it."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: 11 new rides for thrill seekers

  • Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    Gas at $4 per gallon. Airplanes ripping open mid-flight. Donald Trump for president.

    Let’s face it, this summer is looking scary enough without this or that thrill ride raising the bar on near-death experiences. Instead, theme and amusement parks are rolling out new (and newly renovated attractions) that emphasis unique elements and psychological thrills over sheer speed and stupefying G-forces.

    “Parks have wised up,” said Robert Niles, editor of “They're not trying to appeal to record-setting coaster connoisseurs; they're just trying to build something fun that a lot of people will want to ride.” For those who prefer to enjoy their adrenaline rushes while staying conscious, the following rides are worth a spin.

  • Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Image: Cheetah Hunt, Busch Gardens Tampa Bay
    Busch Gardens Tampa Bay

    Opening on May 27, Busch Gardens’ newest coaster celebrates the world’s fastest animal with speeds of up to 60 mph, three pounce-like launches and a route that flies over a simulated Serengeti complete with hills, ravines and waterfalls. It debuts alongside Cheetah Run, a glass-paneled enclosure where the real deal will run sprints several times a day. The combination “takes the thrill away from ‘Let’s see how many times we can go upside down’ to ‘Let’s see how many different elements we can add to a ride,’” said Erik Yates, editor of

  • Octotron, Belmont Park

    Image: Octotron, Belmont Park
    Minh Tra  /  Courtesy Belmont Park

    As the newest addition to San Diego’s beachfront amusement park, this ride never leaves the ground yet still manages to provide a good gut-churning experience. Like the mutant love child of a Tilt-A-Whirl and a tea-cup ride, it features individual cars that circle around a ground-hugging undulating track. However, instead of spinning in flat circles, each two-person car spins forward and backwards with riders controlling just how much head-over-heels (or heels-over-head) motion they can stand. “We must’ve spun upside down like 50 times,” said Robb Alvey, owner/creator of “I’ve never felt so sick in my life.”

  • Untamed, Canobie Lake Park

    Image: Untamed, Canobie Lake Park
    Canobie Lake Park

    No one’s likely to confuse Salem, N.H., with Orlando, Fla., or Anaheim, Calif., but this amusement park just north of Boston is clearly on the hunt for thrill-seekers with Untamed, its new grizzly-themed steel coaster. As just the fourth Euro-Fighter coaster in the country, it features that design’s vertical lift hill and a beyond-vertical first drop at a dizzying 97 degrees. After that, riders are whipped through a wilderness-themed layout, although it will likely be a big green blur given ride elements that include a vertical loop, zero-G roll and a vertical U-turn maneuver known as an Immelmann. The ride is set to open in early June.

  • Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas

    Image: Texas Giant, Six Flags Over Texas
    Six Flags Over Texas

    How does a 21-year-old wooden coaster make the grade as a Class of 2011 screamer? By undergoing a $10 million refurbishment that combines its existing wood structure with an all-new steel track. Considered a hybrid, it combines the wild ride of wood with the speed (65 mph), steep drops (up to 79 degrees) and intense banked turns (95 degrees) of steel. “The original was really powerful, but it was also rough as hell,” said Alvey. “You needed a chiropractor on the exit ramp.” By contrast, the new version “takes everything you think you know about wood coasters and flips it upside down. It’s completely bizarre.”

  • Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Green Lantern: First Flight, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Six Flags Magic Mountain

    It shares its name with another new ride in New Jersey and a big-screen summer movie starring Ryan Reynolds, but this coaster promises to be the most exciting of the bunch. As a four-dimensional coaster, it combines a vertically oriented zigzag track with suspended eight-person trains that rock back and forth and flip 360 degrees. The result is a two-minute ride along 825 feet of track, which means it’s more about the spins than the speeds. “It’s not just taller, faster or barfier,” said Niles. “It’s a completely unique experience.” The ride is set to open in mid-June.

  • Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain

    Image: Superman: Escape from Krypton, Six Flags Magic Mountain
    Mathew Imaging  /  Six Flags Magic Mountain

    How do you refresh a 14-year-old coaster? If it’s Superman, which launched riders straight up an L-shaped, 415-foot-high track, it’s simple: Re-engineer the front-facing cars so riders now go up facing backwards. It’s as fast as ever — riders rocket from zero to 100 mph in seven seconds and experience 6.5 seconds of weightlessness — but now you actually see the ground as it recedes and rushes back at you. It’s especially intense when two cars are launched on the side-by-side tracks. “It’s always fun to look over and see someone else freaking out just as much as you are,” said Yates.

  • Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia

    Image: Dare Devil Dive, Six Flags over Georgia
    Six Flags over Georgia

    The key word is “dive.” After climbing 100 feet up a vertical tower, this Euro-Fighter-style coaster pauses for a moment…and then plunges back down at a beyond-vertical pitch of 95 degrees. Hitting a top speed of 52 mph, it then twists and turns its way through three inversions and over a zero-gravity hill before depositing its dazed riders back at the station. “It’s a complete rush of confusion,” said Yates. “Am I going up? Am I going down? Am I going to die?” (Opening May 28.)

  • Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England

    Image: Gotham City Gauntlet, Six Flags New England
    Six Flags New England

    Old coasters don’t die; they just get moved and/or rethemed. That’s the story behind the Gauntlet, which previously operated as Road Runner Express from 2000 to 2009 at the now-closed Kentucky Kingdom theme park. Topping out at 49 feet, the ride lives up to its scary subtitle — Escape from Arkham Asylum — by putting riders through 17 hairpin turns in around 90 seconds. “It’s more psychological than physical,” said Alvey. “You’re thinking, ‘'Oh my god, is this car going to stay on the track?’”

  • Soarin’ Eagle and Steeplechase, Scream Zone

    Image: Soarin' Eagle, Scream Zone
    Frank Franklin II  /  AP

    The transformation of Coney Island from freak-show funhouse to family-friendly destination continues with the debut of Scream Zone, which features not one but two new coasters. Originally built for Denver’s Elitch Gardens, Soarin’ Eagle is a flying coaster in which riders ride prone and parallel to the track. (Think Superman or, well, a soaring eagle.) “It’s not going to make anyone rearrange their Top 10 coaster list,” said Alvey, “but it’s going to be a good, solid ride.”

    If Soarin’ Eagle provides a glimpse of Coney Island’s future, Steeplechase offers a nod to its past. It takes its name from Steeplechase Park, which opened on the beach in 1897, and from that park’s popular Steeplechase course in which riders raced separately controlled wooden horses around a steel track. On the new version, riders still straddle their saddles, but the trusty steeds are connected in two-across, 12-person trains. In other words, the only way to win the “race” is to be first in line.

  • WindSeeker

    Image: WindSeeker
    Courtesy Cedar Point

    Remember wave swingers, the old kiddie rides in which people sat in swings and got spun around a central pole or tower? Well these rides are like that, only on steroids. At least six parks are opening such rides this summer, with Cedar Point, Kings Island, Knott’s Berry Farm and Canada’s Wonderland all offering 301-foot versions that spin riders in two-person swings that hit speeds of 30 m.p.h. and flare out at up to 45 degrees. “Being that high up is pretty alluring to me,” said Niles. “but I can see where it’d scare the living daylights out of a lot of other people.”


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