The World’s First Fully Accessible Water Park Raises the Bar for Inclusion

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By Kelly Vencill Sanchez
In San Antonio, Morgan’s Inspiration Island opens for its second season.

Bella Edwards is only nine, but she knows better than most what it’s like to live with limitations. When she was diagnosed at birth with spina bifida, bilateral hip dysplasia, severe clubfoot, and a malformation in her cerebellum, her doctors weren’t optimistic about her prognosis. But to watch her wheel herself around Morgan’s Inspiration Island in San Antonio, Texas, is to see only a bubbly third grader having fun. 

Sue Chevalier Idskou, Bella’s grandmother and guardian, estimates she’s made the 100-mile round-trip journey from their home to Morgan’s at least 20 times since the $17 million water park opened last June. Bella and Sue’s 10-year-old daughter, Skye, play hide-and-seek among the spinning palm trees at Morgan’s Hang 10 Harbor and get drenched by the huge water bucket at Harvey’s Hideaway Bay. That Bella uses a wheelchair and Skye does not is irrelevant. "Bella and Skye have fun as equals," says Sue. "I don’t have to worry that Bella can’t do something." 

Bella agrees. "I can go play without help," she says. "And no one looks at me weird. I don’t hear ‘poor girl.’ I’m just a normal kid having fun." 

Giving everyone—regardless of ability—a place to have fun in and around the water was precisely what Gordon Hartman and his wife, Maggie, had in mind when they decided a four-acre water park was the perfect next-door neighbor to Morgan’s Wonderland, the 25-acre "ultra-accessible" theme park they opened in 2010. Both parks are named for the couple’s now-24-year-old daughter, who has cognitive as well as physical challenges. 

When he began developing the framework for Morgan’s Inspiration Island, Gordon followed a route similar to the one he took for Morgan’s Wonderland. "I’d tell park experts a particular water feature needed to not just accommodate someone in a wheelchair but allow their family to be with them," he recalls. "And they’d say, ‘We’ve never done it that way before.’ Or ‘We can’t do that.’ We heard ‘can’t’ a lot." 

"Experts are good, but we wanted to hear from the people who were going to use the park." Gordon Hartman, founder

Gordon, who retired from his San Antonio–based homebuilding business and established a foundation to assist individuals with special needs in 2005, doesn’t like the word "can’t." So he assembled a knowledgeable group of stakeholders—individuals with special needs, caregivers, parents, nurses, therapists, and doctors. Armed with their feedback, he hired architects, designers, and engineers who’d never built a water park. "I didn’t want to be told how we were supposed to build it," he says. 

The result is a place in which accessibility is seamlessly integrated into every detail—from generous pathways that accommodate wheelchairs and walkers to bathrooms with adult-sized changing tables and lifts to facilitate wheelchair transfers. Harvey’s Hideaway Bay and Shipwreck Island are outfitted with a ringing sound that signals the imminent splash of water (guests with hearing impairments are cued by a whirling circle), and the Rainbow Reef splash pad has warm water for guests sensitive to cold. For visitors prone to wandering, waterproof wristbands with radio-frequency identification technology track their whereabouts via smartphones or at "location stations" in the park. 

The River Boat Adventure Ride’s loading platform was specially designed to allow wheelchair users equal access, says Morgan’s creative director, Tracie Ochoa Sheffield. "In the ride’s planning stages, people in wheelchairs had to be in a separate line and enter from a different area up a ramp. We pushed hard to come up with a flush loading platform without a ramp, so you can board whether you’re able-bodied or use a wheelchair." 

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Adding water to the formula that Gordon and his team had successfully created at Morgan’s Wonderland posed a challenge for guests who use power wheelchairs. "The average battery-powered wheelchair is not built for heavy water use," he explains. 

As it happened, Dr. Rory Cooper, the founder and director of the University of Pittsburgh’s Human Engineering Research Laboratories, or HERL, was already at work on a prototype for pneumatic wheelchairs propelled by compressed air. Cooper and HERL’s engineers came up with a waterproof PneuChair, which weighs about 120 pounds. (Traditional battery-powered chairs weigh between 200 and 400 pounds.) The PneuChairs take about 10 minutes to recharge and are easily and inexpensively maintained. Four PneuChairs were manufactured by Stealth Products and are currently available for use at the park, with six more planned for this year. Two types of waterproof manual wheelchairs are also available to guests. All are free of charge. 

"Morgan’s is designed for the person with the least amount of mobility, so they can do everything as independently as possible," says Cooper, a wheelchair user since he suffered a spinal cord injury in 1980. "If you can roll on it with a power chair, you can roll on it with a manual chair, and you can certainly walk there, too." 

The experience of negotiating a fully accessible and inclusive environment is often an emotional one, says Raquella Freeman, who is now in her second year working at Morgan’s Wonderland. "There are moms who cry because it’s the first time they can put their child in a swing." 

"Disability can occur at any point in our lives. Our club is wide and vast." Raquella Freeman, park employee

Freeman, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair, understands their reactions. She recalls family visits to amusement parks as a girl. "There were stairs, and I got told ‘you can’t do that’ a lot." 

She wishes more designers would consider users of different abilities. "I’ve learned to adapt and be creative because I’ve had to. I’d like architects and designers to think about what it might be like in a wheelchair when they’re designing spaces. Then imagine how it would feel to get around that space in a wheelchair day after day." 

Gordon says he hopes the parks created under the Morgan’s umbrella will lead to a greater understanding of people living with not just physical, but all types of disabilities—nearly one in five in the U.S. alone. "Are we going to deny those people the chance to be included and involved in the process?" he asks. 

"There are people who can’t make it without help every day. We’re not going to get all of them to come to the park, but here’s what may happen: They’ll see changes in other things based on what we’re doing, and they’ll have an opportunity to be included."  

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Visitors to Morgan’s Inspiration Island can enjoy five fully accessible water-play areas and a riverboat ride.

Harvey’s Hideaway Bay: Bubbling geysers and spraying palm trees surround a jungle-themed tree house with a large tipping water bucket. There’s also a kids-only water fort.

River Boat Adventure: This easy-to-access boat ride twists and turns through a jungle setting complete with animatronic hippos, alligators, and other animals.  

Rainbow Reef: Guests sensitive to cold can enjoy Rainbow Reef’s heated-water splash pad, with geysers, a spouting purple octopus, and six squirting sea horses. 

Calypso Cove: The interactive musical forest features tree frogs, a xylophone, and mushroom "drums," along with trees and mushrooms overflowing with water.

Hang 10 Harbor: Figures of a boy surfer and his dog perch atop a spout that continuously sprays water as squirting surfboards and palm trees join spinning umbrellas.

Shipwreck Island: A pirate ship with water cannons and a double slide is topped by a huge bucket that fills slowly before tipping water onto the splash pad below.