If Disney is the Magic Kingdom, this is the Magic Kingdom's cooler sister.
Morgan's Island Water Park is the place where kids with special needs aren't just included; they are ushered in with open arms and free admission. Yes, you read that right. All kids with disabilities get into this water-themed park for free, and that's just the beginning of its charm.
As the mom of a son with cerebral palsy, we know what "handicap accessible" usually means for a person who makes 90 percent of his movements in a wheelchair. It means ramps with bumps and peak-like curbs. It means elevators in dark corners far away from the main attractions. It means winding paths that you cross your fingers on, hoping they will wind you back to the main thoroughfare. It's often a game of trust and secret doors and mazes that make you wish for the wheelchair edition of Uber.
But Morgan's Island seems to be the anomaly. No more ramps. How about riverboats that rise to meet you instead? No more lugging my 40-pound five-year-old through the splash pads so he can get in on the action. They've got waterproof wheelchairs instead that run on air, the "PneuChair," which you can check out – for free. It's like a wormhole into Marty McFly's better world.
We've had the opportunity to go to Disney World and let it pass us by. Even with the fast passes for those with special needs, it just felt too…daunting. But Gordon Hartman, the owner and creator of Morgan's Island, seems to have thought of everything. He's even installed areas for privacy when kids need to be moved in and out of wheelchairs. He's got water-proof wristbands for tracking your kid if you know he or she is a wanderer.
Oh, and if your child is sensitive to water temperatures? No problem. The park can adjust the temps to their comfort level. And one of the biggest things for us: Hartman has limited attendance to half-capacity to keep the crowds down. One trip to an especially busy farmer's market can send my son into a tailspin, so I appreciate the sanctity of a little space.
Hartman says his main goal is "inclusion for those with and without disabilities." As the father of Morgan, a young woman with disabilities of her own, his foresight makes sense. This is what all parents of kids with special needs learn to do – think ahead to all contingencies. That's why he brought in other parents, therapists, and doctors to consult during the planning phase.
Hartman has also created a workforce, a third of which is adults with special needs. When my son sees a grown-up spinning wheelies in his wheelchair or using sign language with him, he gets to see a glimpse of a successful future, and so do I as his mom.
When asked about this non-profit park, Hartman said, "It is the most fulfilling work I could ask for…. It's better than making a dollar. This isn't even work, this is something different. I don't wake up for work feeling tired, I wake up wanting to get started."
The park opened Father's Day weekend to great aplomb, and we're planning our trip now. I've shown the videos to my son. He points at the screen and laughs and signs for "more." I've tried to explain that you can't have more of something you've never had. But in this instance, I catch myself thinking "more," too.
I want more of this in the world – more places where "all-inclusive" really does mean what it says. At least we've got a start.