Gordon Hartman wanted to build a space that made his daughter feel included and comfortable. The loving father created a theme park for her and also other people like her.
It is not simply that fathers are called their daughter's heroes. No matter how stuck and down they are in their life, their fathers will find the ultimate solution to make them feel better. Gordon Hartman is such a father, the one who would do anything to bring a smile on his daughter's face. Gordon's daughter falls under the autistic spectrum and the man did the sweetest thing to make sure she felt happy and comfortable.
Gordon, along with his family, was on a family holiday. He noticed his then 12-year-old daughter, Morgan by the pool, trying to make friends with other kids. However, the autistic girl with the cognitive understanding of a five-year-old was left alone by other kids. "Morgan is just a wonderful young lady. When you meet her you will always get a smile and she will always want to offer a hug. But there were so many times we couldn't take her places," said the father to BBC.
Realizing she was not comfortable in such a surrounding, he along with his wife, Maggie asked around to see if there was a place that made children, like their daughter, feel comfortable. However, the family was faced with the sad truth. "We realized such an inclusive place didn't exist," says Hartman.
The determined father was not going to take no for an answer. If there wasn't such a place, he was going to make one for children like his daughter. In 2007, he sold his home building businesses and established the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, hoping to help people with disabilities through the foundation. He then went on to create the "world's first ultra-accessible theme park".
Trying to build an inclusive theme park for people with special needs, he brought together experts from various fields. He consulted doctors, therapists, parents and other people with and without disabilities to gather information and inputs regarding his venture.
In 2010, his efforts paid off. He built a park, called Morgan's Wonderland that cost $34m on a 25-acre site of a disused quarry in San Antonio, Texas. Designed especially for people with disabilities, the park is accessible to any person with a disability. The attractions included a fully-accessible Ferris wheel, a carousel with specially designed chariots for wheelchairs, an adventure playground and a miniature train.
The loving father even recalled his daughter's first ride on the carousel. "When we opened she was too scared to go on it. She didn't understand why it was going around and the animals were going up and down. First, she would stand near it, then she'd get on an animal but we wouldn't start it. It was a slow process but now she loves going on it. Overcoming something she was scared of meant a lot to her. Little things achieved in play can make a big difference," said the man.
He says that his daughter, who is now 23, loves the park. However, he says she does not realize the magnitude of her contribution in changing others' lives. "Morgan knows the park is named after her, but I don't think she understands the magnitude of what it represents and how it's changed lives. She doesn't realize how she has dealt with things in life has made her a true inspiration," said the proud father.
The disabilities friendly park has attracted over a million visitors from 67 countries and from all 50 American states. The entrance to the park remains free to any person with disabilities and the park also employs disabled people. Though the park itself does not make profits, Gordon is not bothered about it. All he wants is a safe and inclusive place for people like her daughter.
"I realized Morgan was one of the lucky ones because she had many of the things she needed. I didn't want cost to be a barrier for others with special needs. We open every year knowing we're going to lose over $1m (£750,000) and we need to recover that through fundraising and partners," said Gordon.
The loving father is now planning to expand the park to create a fully-accessible water park called Morgan's Inspiration Island. "Fewer people were visiting in July because the wheelchairs got too hot. So we decided to create a water park next door," said Gordon. The water park which costs $17m (£13m) is equipped with waterproof motorized wheelchairs, accessible riverboat and will even use warm water, to help visitors with muscular problems.
Gordon is bringing joy to many parents and disabled children. "Yesterday a man came up to me at Inspiration Island and just held my hand. He pointed to his son, who has acute special needs and started crying. He said he hadn't been able to play in water before," said the father. He also said that three out of four visitors to the park were not disabled. It helps people realise that though we are different in some ways, actually we are all the same. I saw one girl in a wheelchair go up to another girl without special needs, and they began playing together. That was really cool," said Gordon.
Though his work is a great success and people request him to open many parks of the same, Gordon has different goals ahead of him. The determined father is now focused on creating educational facilities for teenagers with special needs in San Antonio. However, he promises to work with people who want to recreate the Morgan's Wonderland elsewhere.