When Gordon Hartman was on vacation in 2005 with his wife and daughter, Morgan, he observed something that changed the course of his life.
Morgan, then 12 years old, was swimming and saw other children in the pool throwing a ball. She wanted to play with them, but she was unable to verbalize that she wanted to join their game because she has severe cognitive delays, Hartman says. Morgan walked in between the children and hit the ball because it was her way of saying she wanted to play, but the three children immediately got out of the pool.
"As I'm telling you this story, I can see it right now," says Hartman, 54. "Morgan turned to me like, I don't get it, Dad. I just wanted to play." Hartman jumped in the pool to play with Morgan, but when they returned to their hotel room, the scene replayed in his head.
Hartman contemplated the situation in the pool. He thought of how Morgan and other children and adults with special needs cannot go where most of us go to have fun because the rides, sounds, lights and crowds are overwhelming. He reached out to other parents and caregivers of those with special needs and asked where they took their kids.
"Many of them said, 'There's really nowhere to go, Gordon. We just don't go.' " He spoke with Anthony Shriver, founder and chairman of Best Buddies International, an organization that works with people with intellectual and development disabilities, who said, "Gordon, there's nothing like what you're talking about."
Hartman, who has blue eyes and stark white hair, had recently retired from the home-building business. He sold his real estate development company, mortgage company, title company and insurance company, and created The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation to help people with special needs. He emailed people who were following the nascent foundation to gauge interest in his blossoming idea a theme park that was accessible to all people, no matter their impairment. Numerous people were on board to help. He decided to put some of his own money into the project and raised more for a total of $36 million.
"I said, 'Let's do this,' " Hartman says. "Let's do this the right way and in a big way."
NOT A SPECIAL NEEDS PARK
After three years of raising money and working with doctors and therapists to create an all-inclusive, $36 million amusement park, Hartman opened Morgan's Wonderland in 2010 in San Antonio.
He didn't know what to expect. A lot of questions ran through his mind. Would people who don't have...