Other People's Words

Update on The United States of Autism and interview with Gordon Hartman, founder of Morgan’s Wonderland accessible amusement park

Posted in Uncategorized by Tera on July 20, 2010

This is a transcript of Autism Women’s Network’s interview with Sugey Cruz-Everts, autism consultant on the upcoming documentary The United States of Autism and Gordon Hartman, founder of the accesible amusement park Morgan’s Wonderland.


Sharon daVanport: Good day, everyone, and welcome to AWN radio. This is the Autism Women’s Network on Blogtalk. I am your host, Sharon daVanport, broadcasting from the midwestern United States. Today is Saturday, July 17, 2010. Today we are having a little bit of technical difficulties. I’m just going to go ahead and let you know upfront that it took me about five times for Blogtalk to even accept my host pin number. It kept directing me back, as if I were a guest.

So it looks like my fellow host Tricia Kenney is still trying to get logged in. Our switchboard is lit up, so I am also trying to make for sure that we have our guests who are coming on today correctly identified. So since I’m trying to get all of this done with some technical difficulties, if I have a couple seconds here and there where I have to just say: “Please excuse me for a moment,” you’ll know that I am really trying to get all of this done.

Anyway, I want to remind everyone before we do bring our guest Gordon Hartman of Morgan’s Wonderland on, that we have two contests going on every month here on AWN radio. We do have a monthly prize giveaway from LifePROTEKT–a GPS device and one year of service, which we’ll tell you more about later in today’s show. But currently we are entering names from our chat room and phone numbers from listeners through the switchboard for the upcoming prize giveaway next week that will be compliments of our AWN radio sponsor, b-Calm Sound.

I’m thinking Tricia might be with us now. Tricia, are you online now?

Tricia Kenney: I am here now.

Sharon daVanport: OK. Did you have as much trouble getting through as I did? [laughs]

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. I was wondering. I was like: “Oh, no! Did somebody change the password?” [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: I know. Well, you remember it did that about six times last year–six or seven times last year. I should say, six or seven shows. We had major problems about half a year ago.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. I was really starting to get panicked there. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: I know. They ask you to wait to call in about a quarter of the hour before you start, and so that only gives you 15 minutes to hope that everything’s going to go just perfectly. [laughs]

Tricia Kenney: I know.

Sharon daVanport: Which, nothing’s ever perfect. So how are you doing today, Trish?

Tricia Kenney: I’m doing really well. How are you?

Sharon daVanport: Trying to stay cool with the humidity breaking records all over the midwest. I feel like I’m back in Texas. It’s unreal. This humidity is…ugh. Really getting to me.

Tricia Kenney: I know. It doesn’t feel like I moved anywhere near north of Oklahoma, for myself, either.

Sharon daVanport: [laughs] Well, since we have a packed show, I know that our switchboard is kind of lit up and I don’t know which number. I know the first number in case you’re looking over there, Tricia. That’s Sugey Cruz-Everts, and I’ve already said hello to her. So we’re going to have to find the other number that’s our other guest, since our switchboard is a bit busy.

So I want to go ahead and bring Sugey on before we welcome Gordon Hartman. First of all, before we bring Sugey on, Gordon is with Morgan’s Wonderland. It’s really awesome about Gordon. He’s going to tell you what the inspiration was that’s very near and dear to his heart that’s behind the amusement park, Morgan’s Wonderland. He’ll let us know what that is when he comes on.

But first, as I said, we’re going to welcome Sugey. I hope I said that–I’m just so terrible with names, Tricia. You know that. It’s just awful. I just slaughter them. But Sugey Cruz-Everts, She is the autism advisor and wife to the executive producer and director of the upcoming autism documentary, The United States of Autism. Sugey is going to give us all a quick update on how the crew is doing, as they have now recently passed, I believe, the halfway mark in the filming schedule.

Tricia Kenney: Yep. Yep.

Sharon daVanport: Yes, so that’s very exciting. So welcome to AWN radio, Sugey.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Hi. How are you guys doing?

Tricia Kenney: Doing really well. How are you?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Good, good, Tricia and Sharon.

Tricia Kenney: So how do you pronounce your name?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: You said it correctly.

Tricia Kenney: Oh, OK.


Sharon daVanport: You see it online and we’ve corresponded so much via e-mail over the last several months. But just to say your name out loud, I’m always so scared I’m going to get that wrong.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Hey, you did a great job. You did a great job. I’ve had people butcher it in many, many ways, including “Sergei.” I’m like; “I’m not a Russian man!” I don’t know what that’s all about.


Sharon daVanport: Sergei! Wow. Well, for starters, Sugey, I would like for you to share with all of our listeners a little about the concept and vision behind The United States of Autism movie and what makes it unique. Can we start there?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Sure. In essence, it originally started as an idea I had about a book. Obviously, we have a son who’s on the spectrum who’s more severe who’s 11. We do a lot of work through the Tommy Foundation—which is named after our son—with different families in the northeast, mostly, but also some families outside of that, especially now with the movie–across the US, more of an advisory role in a lot of ways.

Some of the things that we started to notice with some of my work there, as well as with the state program that they have here in Pennsylvania called Parent Education Network [which] is training programs with a lot of families–grandparents, professionals in the area, etc. Some of the things that we were just noticing is just the hardships that a lot of families are having.

But aside from the hardships, just this great hope and this great drive that families have for their kids. Wanting to see their family still succeed; wanting for their families to have a better life, and really echoing the themes that anybody wants for their family. It’s the reason why immigrants want to come into the United States. It’s that American dream.

One night, Rich and I were just talking and the inception of the idea came into our heads of: “Hey! Families that have children with autism are really not that different from families across the US. We should really try to bring out this ides of what it is that families want; what it is that they’re trying to do; what their life was actually like before their kids.” For them, some of the struggles that they’re having, but ultimately how they’re overcoming some of their struggles.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, there are always struggles. And there’s struggles regardless of whether you’re on the spectrum or not. And so I think that’s something, too, that we’re trying to get people to understand. Ultimately, in order for us as a community to have a better future for our families and for our children, we need to start to work together. That’s a big part of it, too: hoping that somehow we can all see a shared vision and a shared struggle and a shared hope in what we see in each of these families.

So there’s 20 families in all, so we want to be able to bring that out and show: “You might not relate to this family completely, but you might relate to them because they have the same religion as you. You might relate to them because they live in the same town as you. Or you might relate to them because, ‘Hey! What they said there echoes how I feel about my child.'”

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Tricia Kenney: Right. We’re more alike than we are different.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Yeah, exactly.

Sharon daVanport: And I really appreciate, too, Sugey, the way that…I’m really always hesitant to either join any organization online unless I really look into it. When I was first approached with the idea, with The United States of Autism, what I thought about it…Nothing personal, but like everything else I was real hesitant: “I wonder what it’s going to be about. Is it going to…”

Once I looked into it and had a couple other people that I really trust that help me make for sure I’m not misunderstanding things look into it, I appreciated that it’s exactly what you said it is. You talk about the shared struggles. But the one thing that really got me really connected with the film is that it’s not doing it in that dreary, pathetic way, like: “Oh, this has just ruined your life.” It’s not like that. You guys really have this love and joy about you, that you really want, like you said, to bring hope and to show autism in its reality but also in the shared struggles and hope and joy that we all have as families. I really appreciate that, Sugey. You guys just did really nice on that–the whole concept.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Well, thank you. Rick [Everts, the executive producer] sends his regards from Florida, which is where he is now. I talked to him maybe 10 minutes before I logged in. He wanted me to make sure that you guys knew that he appreciated everything you guys are doing. He loved seeing you, Sharon. He said that you’re an incredible woman, and he can’t wait for me to see your interview. [laughs nervously]

Sharon daVanport: Aw. [laughs nervously]

Tricia Kenney: Is it warm in Florida?

Sharon daVanport: Well, they made it easy. We were all very nervous that day, but I tell you: the filming went much better than I even anticipated. I was so nervous. I like being behind the scenes on the radio. [laughs nervously] In front of the cameras is not my thing, but [the crew?] was awesome, and I’d like [unknown]–

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Well, he said you’re a spectacular speaker. He said that you’re a spectacular speaker, so. [laughs nervously]

Sharon daVanport: Aw. Well, OK. I’m just a little bit shy about that, but OK. [laughs nervously] But can you name the crew members? I know who they are, but can you just tell all of our listeners who they are and what they do, the crew? OK?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Sure. OK. Well, there’s Richard Everts, obviously, and he’s the executive producer. He’s going to be in the film as well, obviously, because you’ll get to see him as the person interviewing all the families. There’s Rene Duran. He’s from Los Angeles, California. But he’s actually done a couple of different projects in Hollywood already. So he’s done shows like Hell’s Kitchen, Nanny 911, all those kinds of things. He has also done some actual documentary work himself. He did a documentary that is going to be on the O Network–the Oprah Winfrey channel–which is about street dogs in Los Angeles. So he’s actually assisting Rich’s director as well and doing a lot of the cinematography.

Cassie Lees is a recent graduate from Franklin & Marshall College, where she studied film. We’re actually all alumni from that institution, which is how we all know each other. [laughs] She just finished studying film there, and she’s amazing with lighting. That’s actually her specialty. That’s what she’s bringing to the fold. And she actually just did her first horror film, which is a big vehicle that they have. It’s their first thing out of school, usually.

Sharon daVanport: Oh. OK.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: So she’s going to have that coming out soon. I think it’s going to DVD or something. But that was her first project. But she’s really good with lighting, so that’s what she brings to it.

And then Rosleny Ubinus is still a student at the school. Both her and Cassie, actually, have a different kind of passion with it as well. Their way that they’re affected and were interested in autism is that they both have worked with the Tommy Foundation as volunteers. So they actually worked directly one-on-one with children who are on the spectrum.

Sharon daVanport: OK.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: So each person that’s actually on the crew also has direct experience working with children as well. It’s one of the things that I keep seeing when people respond with comments to the blog or on Facebook is: “Oh, they’re really, really good with the kids!” And it’s like: “Well, they should be.” [laughs] “They went through a lot of training. And they’re working one-on-one with kids, so they should be pretty good with it.”

Sharon daVanport: Right. And they’re good with adolescents. My 13-year-old daughter just fell in love with the crew. She really did. That was one thing she kept going on and on about is: “They’re just so nice! I wasn’t as nervous as I thought I’d be, Mom!” I’m like: “Well, neither was I.” [laughs] I mean, I was, but just not as nervous as I thought. So they really are a great crew. That’s why I wanted to at least take a moment and introduce each one of them. They’re doing just fantastic. And they’re more than halfway through now, correct?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: They are more than halfway through. Today is officially day number 25, so they’re in Orlando, Florida and by tonight they’ll be in Miami. They’ll get some more footage there, and then by the middle of next week they’ll already be in Washington, DC, and they’ll actually be there for a couple of days. They’re going to be seeing Alex Plank, whom you probably know fairly well, and also interviewing former Senator Rick Santorum and Congresswoman Diana DeGette in DC, as well. They played a big part in the bill that’s set to possibly expire unless it gets renewed–the Combating Autism bill.

Sharon daVanport: OK. Right.

Tricia Kenney: Which family are they with now?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Right now they are with the Brazliks. They just met with them last night and did their interviews. They’re a Muslim family. They were originally living in Texas, and then they moved to Florida a couple of years ago. We knew this before because–and Sharon knows this–we did extensive phone interviews with everybody beforehand to make sure we had some idea and they could ask us questions.

But she shared a story that even Rich, who’s pretty stoic for the most part started crying during the interview. But her son actually had gone into cardiac arrest, and she actually had to revive him. When she took him to the hospital after she had revived him, the doctor actually asked her why she even bothered to do that. He didn’t really have much of a quality of life anyway, so she should’ve just let him die.

Sharon daVanport: [shocked, sad] Oh.

Tricia Kenney: [shocked, sad] Oh.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: And I was like: “What?!” Obviously, as a parent, that just destroys you.

Sharon daVanport: Well, yeah. That’s just so wrong in every way. You know, Sugey, that’s just wrong.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: It’s completely wrong. She’s got an amazing story. As it is right now, she’s separated. The dad’s not going to be in the film. It’s hard. And that’s just one of those things that…She’s just such a strong, strong woman. She’s doing it how a lot of families have to do it. I don’t really know from personal [experience]–obviously, Rich is very involved in our life and our situation. But there are so many people that are having that struggle that she’s having.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: And then she has the added struggles with some times when things happen with her faith and everything else. So they’re going to actually be interviewing with her imam today, as well, as part of the interview.

Sharon daVanport: Nice.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Yes. That’s one thing that Rich is. He’s very thorough. [laughs]

Tricia Kenney: Are they getting any sort of burnout yet, or are they still going strong?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: They’re still going strong. Rich made the schedule. They obviously, as much as you try to schedule things–and we did–for like a month. Everybody got their schedule ahead of time. They knew exactly what was going on. Life happens, and, you know. [laughs] We’ve had a couple things happen here and there, and because of it you have to do adjustments and whatnot.

So they’re a little burnt out, but they’ve made sure that they take some breaks here and there. They’ll have a day off in Miami. They had a day off in Los Angeles. They had the Fourth of July off in Colorado–in Denver, yeah.

Sharon daVanport: Right. It’s day 25, you said? It’s day 25 out of 40? Is that correct?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Yes.

Sharon daVanport: Trying to keep up with that, it’s like only…So, wow. Just 15 more days to go.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Just 15 more days to go. And once they’re done in Florida, it’s a lot less long-distance driving because it’s going to be mostly in the northeast.

Sharon daVanport: OK.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Yeah. The one we were the most scared about was going from California to Oklahoma. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: That was a long track, right?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: That was the longest track. But once he did that, then they went from Texas into Alabama, we were like: “All right. The long trip’s are kind of over.” [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: Wow. Well, my goodness! Please send Rich and the crew our best from AWN, and that everyone here at Autism Women’s Network is wishing them a safe trip and to continue on as wonderful as they are. I cannot wait for everyone to see [this film.] I know this film is going to be fantastic, because the crew is just phenomenal.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: They’re a very great bunch.

Sharon daVanport: And we mean to include you, too, Sugey. You know, they always say that behind something good is something even better. So you may be behind the scenes, but you’re doing much more than what people probably realize, as co-founder of the Tommy Foundation. It’s another award-winning non-profit. I wanted everyone to know that, too. So where can they find the Tommy Foundation online? What is that website?

Sugey Cruz-Everts: It’s www.tommyland.org

Sharon daVanport: OK.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: And, yeah, definitely send us e-mails. We have, obviously, the Facebook page for The United States of Autism on there, too. So feel free to email me. There’s been tons of people that I’ve met that way, too. They’re a part of the story, too, because they’re letting us know what’s on their mind.

That’s something that is also part of my advisory role. When I find out that some bill passed somewhere or something, I’m constantly sending that to Rich. It’s like: “I know you’re not having time to check this stuff out. This is something you should be aware of.” Or “This is something that just came up and you should consider that when you’re talking to so-and-so.”

Sharon daVanport: I don’t know how you do it all. I watch you make all those posts over on Facebook and I’m like: “My goodness!”

Sugey Cruz-Everts: [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: You just get so much done. Like they say: If you want something done, as a busy person. They’ll find a way to get it done.

Tricia Kenney: [laughs]

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: You’re so good at this, Sugey! But thank you so much for coming on.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: Absolutely. Thank you so much, Tricia and Sharon, for having me. I look forward to giving an update soon.

Tricia Kenney: Well, take care.

Sharon daVanport: All right. We’ll [talk to?] you hopefully next week again. OK. All right.

Sugey Cruz-Everts: All right. Thank you. Bye-bye.

Tricia Kenney: Uh-huh. Bye-bye.

Sharon daVanport: Bye.

[Sugey Cruz-Everts hangs up]

Sharon daVanport: How wonderful, right? [unknown]

Tricia Kenney: [unknown] so impressive, because it’s such a grueling mission that they went on to do this in 40 days. Glad to hear that they’re doing really well. Of course, it has to be the hottest streak in the summer that they’re doing this. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: And they’re in the South right now.

Tricia Kenney: I know.

Sharon daVanport: I’m from Texas; I know how hot it is. I didn’t really want to complain too much about this humidity because this is really nothing compared to what I grew up in. [laughs] Nothing. But it’s a lot. I’ve lived here for 15, almost 16 years, so my body’s more acclimated to not as severe weather, so I’m having to kind of deal with it right now. [laughter]

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. I’m really missing Wisconsin at this point [laughs].

Sharon daVanport: Aw. I know. You’re just a few hours from where I am, Trish. I guess we should welcome our guest on. Our guest his Gordon Hartman, and he’s of Morgan’s Wonderland, the amusement park in in San Antonio, Texas. This is just an absolute novel idea, and I can’t wait for Gordon to explain to everyone exactly what Morgan’s Wonderland is all about. Welcome, Gordon.

Gordon Hartman: Thank you very much; I appreciate the opportunity.

Sharon daVanport: I know. Thank you.

Tricia Kenney: Hi, Gordon.

Sharon daVanport: This is Sharon. Now, you’ve met Trish more. You’ve been speaking with her more as she was producing this show. I’m glad to finally get a chance to say hello to you today, and thank you for coming on and sharing with us this wonderful story about Morgan’s Wonderland. Can you start off by telling everyone what the inspiration behind Morgan’s Wonderland is?

Gordon Hartman: Sure. About five and a half years ago, I had the opportunity to sell many companies that I had and I’ve been in business for 22 years. I opened a foundation to work toward helping those who have special needs. And in doing so, there were many things that we wanted to do: first of all, give grant money to 501c3s; work toward getting more information out to telling the public about the good things that special needs individuals do in the community; help smaller non-profits become bigger.

But the fourth thing we wanted to do is tackle with an entrepreneurial type of approach things that we felt were missing or needed some additional help in the area of developing programs and places and environments for people who have special needs to enjoy themselves. So I didn’t really know where that was going to go the first six months or a year or so as I got into it. But I had an experience with my daughter Morgan when we were on vacation about a year after I started the foundation.

Morgan and I were at a pool at a hotel, and as we were there, there were only Morgan and I in the pool along with a couple of kids down at the other end of the pool. I got out of the pool and I could notice that Morgan wanted to play with the kids on the other end of the pool. So she slowly tried to inch her way over that way. Morgan is on the autistic spectrum. She has severe cognitive delay. She’s 16, but at other levels, about a 7 year old, and verbally is very limited in what her ability is to be able to communicate what she wants.

And so as she continued to inch her way her way over, and someone gestured to these folks, these two young kids that she’d like to play throwing the ball back and forth with them. And they wanted to play with her. But they didn’t know, because Morgan’s different, as to how to [unknown] interaction between all of them so that they could all play together.

And so as I’m sitting there as a father, I thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be neat if we could build a place that was built with special needs individuals in mind first so that there are no barriers? That there’s nothing that would stop anyone, no matter what their mental or physical need may be? And not only that, but also develop a park that’s large enough and detailed enough to where it’s like any other park, yet it’s specialized in allowing those who have special needs to do anything they want. But it would also be a park of inclusion, where anyone could come into the park and enjoy playing together with those who have special needs.” From that idea, some 39 months later we finished the development of a 25-acre, $33 million special needs park in San Antonio, Texas called Morgan’s Wonderland. It has been extremely successful.

We’ve had people from already over 41 different states come to the park. We’ve had over 15,000 people register and be a part of the park since it opened just three months ago.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: And so the [unknown] is absolutely amazing, and we’re just very blessed that so many people from the community came together; so many people from around the country got involved and said: “This is something we need to do.” We’re just scratching the surface. I always have to remind myself we’ve only been open three months. These stories that I’ve received–hundreds, hundreds of stories–through email and letters and phone calls, saying: “Let me tell you how this park has changed the life of my family or my child that I care for, the adult that I care for.” Because this is a park for all ages. It’s just absolutely amazing. So we’re on to something here, and think there’s a lot of potential.

Sharon daVanport: You are. [laughs] I really think it’s fabulous, Gordon, and what I’m so impressed with–everyone should know this–is you think of an amusement park and you think: “Oh, my! It costs so much to get in.” I was looking at this, and I think the prices are just fabulous. First of all, if you are a special needs person, you get in free, every single time.

Gordon Hartman: Every single time, yeah.

Sharon daVanport: Yes. And then if you’re a person with a special needs individual, is that five dollars?

Gordon Hartman: It’s five dollars.

Sharon daVanport: Just five dollars.

Gordon Hartman: Yep.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: Normally, you would pay for a park like this somewhere–

Sharon daVanport: And that’s if you have advanced registration, right? Now is that with advanced registration, five dollars, right? Do you have to call ahead?

Gordon Hartman: That’s right. Well, you can do it online. Most people do it online. About 80 percent of everybody who comes to the park is actually pre-registered. The reason we do pre-registration is because we need to manage this park every day, basically, to make sure that we have proper personnel in the park to handle any issues.

Sharon daVanport: I see.

Gordon Hartman: So we ask through that, if you wish to tell us, what your special need is. We have a special process that we’re able to review that so that every day we manage to make sure that we are ready for everyone who’s coming to the park, whether they have a special need or not.

Sharon daVanport: OK.

Gordon Hartman: This is a big, big place. This park will hold 4500 people. It has an eight-acre lake where we actually have a catch-and-release fishing program.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: We have an amphitheater that overlooks the lake. We have a train ride that is fully accessible. We have a offroad jeep ride that’s fully accessible. Whether you’re in a wheelchair or not, you can get on it because we’ve developed a special process to allow for that to occur.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. That is–

Gordon Hartman: We have a carousel that anyone can ride. So this is a park where people can spend a lot of time. But something that we heard in discussion, because we did a lot of grassroots-type understanding of what really needed to go in this park. Honestly, I didn’t know anything about it. I was in home, building, land development, and I didn’t know anything about how to build a park.

So I’m talking with families and caregivers. That’s how we learned that the number one thing was: “Give us a safe park. Give us a place that if our child or adult runs from us or whatever, we can find him quickly.” So when you come into the park with pre-registration, you get an RFID tag, a little bracelet. It has a computer chip in it, and through that, we can find you within a second within the park, wherever you are, based on different screens at the park.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Sharon daVanport: All right.

Gordon Hartman: You’re never really lost in the park. We’ve had children and adults get lost, break up from their family by accident. And what we were able to do is allow them the opportunity to find their family very quickly. It just really brings the anxiety down. So this park isn’t just for special needs individuals. It’s also for the caregivers and the families to just relax, because there’s only one way in, one way out. There’s security to monitor things, to make sure that you really are in a secure atmosphere–as most secure as we can make it, to where when you’re there, you really enjoy it. It’s not a park where every second the families and the caregivers are having to stay on their toes out of concern of what’s going to happen.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: Between first aid facilities we have on-staff nurses. Everything is there. But at the same token, we also want people who don’t have special needs to come to the park, and that’s working. It’s really neat to see the joining together of those who have special needs playing and enjoying with those who don’t have special needs. We control the ratio, because we know who’s coming into the park: who has a special need; who’s a caregiver; who’s a parent; who is not [unknown] with special needs folks. So we make sure the atmosphere is always right. No matter what the special need may be, there’s a comfort feeling there.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: We even have a sanctuary–a garden area–to where if someone, for example, just has too much sensory activity by being in the park, there’s a park within the park that’s off along the lakeshore of the lake where people can go and relax and soothing music and then come back into the park when they feel like it’s time to do so.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. [laughs]

Gordon Hartman: There’s just so many things to do. But the reason we kept it affordable is because of the fact that my experience of working with special needs families and caregivers and all the people involved is that, when you figure in all the therapies and all the doctors’ appointments and all the different medicines and things, many times the money is not there.

We wanted to make sure that if you were special needs that you could come and ride that train every day if you wanted to. And your family or your caregiver could come–and for just five dollars–to be with you all day at the park. If we made it the regular cost of any other park, we would lose a lot of people from the enjoyment of what we have to offer.

Sharon daVanport: Right

Gordon Hartman: And we didn’t want that to happen. That’s why we keep it affordable. We lose money every year; we have a deficit of about $800,000 a year to run this. But we work toward makings sure we can find that funding to keep this park open.

But it’s something that’s beyond anything. You can look at it on a brochure; you can drive by it and look on the website. But when you get there, that’s when people really go: “Wow!” So to all your listeners, this is a place that when you come to it, you’ll find it’s well worth the time. I can say that not because we’re the ones who put it together. I can say it because of the hundreds of people who have told me that, just in the past three months.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. It’s so hard to believe, too, that it’s only been three months and that there’s so much activity already. Someone from almost every state’s already been there just this summer. So that means you guys opened late spring?

Gordon Hartman: We opened on April 10 to a crowd of about 8,000 people.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: Incredible. Eva Longoria, David Robinson, others joined in the opening of it. It was a massive opening. From that, we have zero marketing budget–we do a lot on Facebook, we do a lot on Twitter. That’s how people follow us, and from that, though, we’re just scratching the surface. We know that there’s so much need out there for something like this, and this is the first time it’s ever been done in the world.

Sharon daVanport: I know.

Gordon Hartman: We’re getting so many requests. We’ve had requests from Australia, from Russia, from Israel, from the UK, from people around the country wanting to know: “How can we replicate this elsewhere?” So I think in time, this is really going to be something even bigger than it is right now. But the key thing to me right now, since now we’re done building it and putting it in place and really have it up and operating, is to make sure everybody knows about it. That’s why I’m really appreciative of y’all letting me come on and talk about it, so that your listeners can have the opportunity to come to San Antonio and enjoy this park.

Sharon daVanport: Right. I’ll tell you, we are just going to really let everyone know about this and to listen to your interview so we can get it posted all around online. This is truly a novel and unique concept, and to think that you took it from an idea and made it into a reality. So many families are now able to share in this story. It’s just wonderful.

You mentioned you have a carousel. What are some of the other unique features of Morgan’s Wonderland that is truly unique to your park?

Gordon Hartman: We have what we refer to as a “Waterworks” area, where you can play with water. You don’t get in the water; you don’t get in the pool. But it’s an area where children and adults can play with water by damming it up, but moving water from one area to another. Getting water to do things is very, very popular, of course, during the summer.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: [Eventually we had this idea?] where we put on shows. We have puppet shows. We have bands that come in. We have all sorts of different things going on there. We have a fishing wharf that is over the lake. It’s a massive area where up to eight people at one time can go fishing, the fish-and-release program. We have remote-controlled boats that people can drive and be captain of, if you will.

Tricia Kenney: What’s the pirate ship?

Gordon Hartman: Oh, the pirate ship is really, really neat.

Tricia Kenney: Yeah, it looks neat.

Gordon Hartman: We have water cannons that are for you to shoot different things that come out of the lake so that kids can play. And all this stuff is very easy, no matter what your special need is, to be able to play. There are three different playscapes in the park that take up almost an acre of land, all of it with [important?] place, so it’s all a very soft, cushioned area in case someone was to fall. And in all these areas we have 35 different swings, five different types of swings, from a regular swing all the way to three swings that are just for children or adults who have wheelchairs.

We have a 5,000-square foot air conditioned sensory village. From the outside, it looks like Main Street, USA. On the inside, it has areas where you can act like you’re on TV. It has an area [unknown] and like you’re working on a car; it has an area where you’re buying groceries and can go through the whole process of that.

Sharon daVanport: Like a virtual world, or something.

Gordon Hartman: A virtual world. Right.

Sharon daVanport: Yeah. Oh, neat!

Gordon Hartman: Yeah. And we have a theater in there, where you can stand in front of these screens and butterflies will land on you. You can hold rocks and then drop some. They’re all graphics, but you can hear them. There’s a lot of sensory activity in this area.

Sharon daVanport: Wowl

Gordon Hartman: And of course, we have the train that goes around, and as you go around the lake you get to see different areas of the world–Mexico, Japan, Germany, Italy, the Caribbean are different areas that we have. And the sound changes as you go to different areas of the country.
If you go to the music play area where you get to go in and play instruments, nine different instruments are outside in this garden area where you can go and play.

And you can go to the sand circle. What’s different about it than a normal sand box is that we’ve made it into a circle, and allowed it where if you’re on crutches or in a wheelchair you can wheel or walk to the middle. The sand is brought up to a higher level, so that you can play while your friends play with you in the sand. There are special shovels where you can actually have the ability to do different things with the sand that doesn’t exist at other [unknown] sand facilities.

You can go and ride the offroad adventure ride, which allows you to go around the park in a Jeep-type deal. Whether you’re in a wheelchair or not in a wheelchair, whatever your need may be–mental, physical–you can get on these. We have everything that’s adaptable on these that were specially built for Morgan’s Wonderland.

I mentioned the carousel; we also have a basketball facility, an indoor volleyball–

Sharon daVanport: Like a gym, then? You have a gym area?

Gordon Hartman: A gym, an event center. We have a learning center. I can keep going if you want me to.

Tricia Kenney: [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: I wish you would.

Gordon Hartman: There is a lot to do.

Sharon daVanport: [laughs] I noticed!

Tricia Kenney: Well, I want to go now.

Sharon daVanport: I know. I really do. Well, I’m from Texas, Gordon, so I love San Antonio. It’s a beautiful city. It’s one of my favorite cities in Texas, San Antonio–just gorgeous. So I can’t think of a more beautiful city to have Morgan’s Wonderland in. And what I really like is it’s very conveniently located. Isn’t it located just right across from the new stadium there in San Antonio? Is that where you are?

Gordon Hartman: Yeah, that’s right. What happened originally three years ago when I started this whole thing…Honestly, I’m very upfront about this: I had no idea what I was going to be doing. I just knew I wanted to do it. I went and bought about 225 acres of an old quarry–a beautiful quarry, an old rock quarry–and I needed about a million yards of dirt to get the site to work. In doing so, I knew I didn’t need all the land.

So I did two things with it: I sold off about 70 acres to a school district that built a large stadium next door, a beautiful facility. And in addition to just building a special needs park, I also built a 75-acre first class soccer facility.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: And the reason why I did that is because I wanted to have something that could ultimately generate money that would help subsidize Morgan’s Wonderland, since I knew I would lose money because I wanted to let everybody in for free.

Tricia Kenney: Right.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: So, in doing so, the soccer, which San Antonio has not done a real overly efficient job on keeping up with, we have now made sure that we have a first lass facility. Right now this weekend is a major tournament going on there; we’re making money at that. And that money all goes to helping special needs folks and people who come to Morgan’s Wonderland.

Sharon daVanport: So that’s [unknown], and there’s hotel discounts, correct? It’s he Marriott and the Comfort Suites who give you [discounted?] rates?

Gordon Hartman: That’s right. They also give 10 percent of anything you spend at their places to Morgan’s Wonderland. So we’re slowly setting things like this up.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. That’s wonderful.

Gordon Hartman: People say: “What about this? What about that?” I go: “Hey, it’s on the list. But we only started this 42 months ago, so you’ve got to give me a little time. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: You’ve only been open three months. [laughs]

Gordon Hartman: Yeah, we’ve only been open three months, but we move pretty fast. I had an email from someone the other day that was really neat. I get emails through our website sent to me, and there are certain ones that are just really something. I have to say this: we have a family who had two special needs individuals–children–who are both in wheelchairs. They said: “It’s just too difficult to fly, so we’re going to drive to Morgan’s Wonderland.” They came all the way from Florida, drove the 22 hours to drive all of this. They said to spend one day at Morgan’s Wonderland was well worth it, and they’re going to do it every year from now on.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Sharon daVanport: Aw.

Gordon Hartman: [At?] the park, there is something and until you see it, you won’t believe the opportunities that exist at this park. If you’re not sure, if you think I’m just telling you this, then go onto our Facebook page or go onto our website and read the stories. Those are not our written stories; those are people telling us how this park can really make a difference. And so it’s an opportunity for those who have special needs, for those who don’t have special needs, to really join together and enjoy something. They haven’t done this anywhere else in the world.

Tricia Kenney: My son broke his leg this summer, and one of the things that I had to think about at that point was: “We couldn’t go to the zoo, because they like to go on the train there. It would mean me carrying him onto the train and then trying to fold up the wheelchair and carry that with us for the train ride, and not even having enough leg room for him to be on there.” I can imagine for families where that’s just a part of everyday life how limiting it is to go to public places.

Gordon Hartman: Well, at Morgan’s Wonderland, that issue’s not an issue.

Sharon daVanport: That’s great. Can you tell our listeners about some of the volunteer opportunities that the park has [unknown] on your website?

Gordon Hartman: Yeah. Another thing that we do–and it’s very important to the success of Morgan’s Wonderland–is for every employee that we have, we actually have two volunteers in the park itself. These people have gone through a seminar to know all about the park, but they’re there to help people. And they are supervised by someone who is paid by Morgan’s Wonderland, but they’re there just to accommodate people as necessary.

We want to make sure we always have plenty of personnel in the park, but we can’t afford to pay everybody when you’re giving away a lot of people into the park for free. So we use a lot of volunteers. We have full-time volunteer recruiters, and we just have found an outpouring of desire on people’s part to want to volunteer their time and be volunteers at Morgan’s Wonderland.

Tricia Kenney: Aw.

Gordon Hartman: The idea is working: between bringing money into the park, between bringing volunteers in, we’re able to sustain Morgan’s Wonderland. We’re always looking for donations, but that’s not my job. My job is to make sure the donations will come. People have been very gracious. That’s how we operate this thing, is trying to really keep it to where everybody who goes really gets an experience that they go: “Wow!”

I’ll tell you one other story I got from a family. After they left, their special needs daughter asked a question to her parents: “What’s Heaven?” And the parent say to her: “Well, why do you ask?” And the young girl who has a special need said: “You always said it was a place where there’s everything that I would like.” And the mom said: “Yeah, that’s right.” She said: “Did we just go to Heaven?”

Sharon daVanport: Ohhh.

Gordon Hartman: It’s just kind of cool, some of the stories I hear.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, my goodness! That’s sweet!

Gordon Hartman: Yeah. It’s pretty cool stuff, yeah.

Sharon daVanport: [unknown]

Gordon Hartman: Needless to say, I have a fulfilling job.

Sharon daVanport: [laughs]

Tricia Kenney: Yeah, I bet. What about the garden sanctuary and memorial wall?

Gordon Hartman: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. As I mentioned earlier, the garden sanctuary is a park within the park. It’s a really neat area so families and those who have special needs in addition want to take a time out within the park. Sometimes we just need a time away from all the stuff, the movement.

Sharon daVanport: Sure.

Gordon Hartman: In doing so, we’ve built up this wall that surrounds it to keep out some of the sounds. We built a memorial wall. Next month, we’ll actually place the first names on the wall, where people through our website have requested that a name of a loved one who has passed away from a special need–whatever the special need may be–and we place their name on this wall. It’s not a plaque; it’s actually engraved into rock, so it remains there forever.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Sharon daVanport: Wow.

Gordon Hartman: We’re starting that, and we’ll do our first names next month because we’ll have been open four months. We have numerous names that we’re getting ready to put on, so all the stuff that I’m talking about is at our website. You can find every bit of opportunities that exist with us at our website.

Sharon daVanport: And what is your website address?

Gordon Hartman: it’s morganswonderland.com There’s everything you ever want to know about the park, and if there’s not, go and push the “Info” button and they’ll get you answers to any questions you might have. If you have a specific question, you can ask it. We have an FAQ area where there are a lot of questions and answers. We really tried to make the website as accessible to people to fully understand what the park’s about.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: And we’ve done a pretty good job, but still, there’s some unique questions. If you have them, we’ll answer them for you. That’s what we’re there for. We’re not about selling tickets, we’re about offering a service. I really emphasise…that’s the culture. The culture is: We’re not here to make money. We’re here to offer a service.

Sharon daVanport: Right. And it’s a wonderful one, isn’t it, Tricia? This is just fabulous.

Tricia Kenney: I know. I really, really want to go. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: I know. I know. I do, too. I’m serious.

Tricia Kenney: Is that a statue of your daughter in that memorial area?

Gordon Hartman: No. We have different art throughout the park. What you’re seeing on the website was actually some art that was made in New York for us of some special needs folks. One child is in a wheelchair, another one’s on a walker, another one has a butterfly. Our theme throughout the park, by the way, is the butterfly. The idea being that you come out of your cocoon at Morgan’s Wonderland, and are able to fly and do things that you can’t do elsewhere.

We also have four characters in the park, similar to Mickey Mouse or whatever at Disneyland. We want to have our own characters, and we have four of them. We have Morgan, who has wings so she can fly and do things that before she could not do. She has a superpower. We have Jet; even though she uses a walker she has special powers in the park. We have Rocket, who has a wheelchair that has mag wheels and has power to do things that they can’t do elsewhere; and we have X-Ray, where even though he’s blind, in the park he’s able to do things that he can’t do elsewhere. We’re writing a book, actually, that ties these characters to the park that will be released next April on our first anniversary.

So that’s a lot of things we’re trying to do. And we also have Morgan’s Corner on the website. In there are just coloring books and a lot of interactive things that kids and adults can do before they come to the park to kind of get a sense of what the park’s all about.

Sharon daVanport: OK.

Tricia Kenney: So it truly is for any special needs, then.

Gordon Hartman: Yes. Yes. There are no barriers.

Sharon daVanport: What are your hours and days? I saw your hours are listed on the website, but are there any months during the year that you’re not open? Or being [unknown] pretty good.

Gordon Hartman: Well, it is, but it gets pretty cold here in January and February.

Sharon daVanport: True.

Gordon Hartman: We haven’t made a decision yet. We don’t know what we’re going to do for January and February. Outside January and February, we’re open every month–March through December, we’re open. So we’re open all the way to the end of the year. And again, you’ve got to remember: we’re experimenting every day. Everything’s a new experience for us right now, in respect to how things are done, what times we’re open.

And we’ve already changed our hours one time based on surveys and focus groups that we’ve done, to try to make sure we’re open at the right time. We’re going to open tonight, for example, to 8:00. Normally we’re closed at 6:00. We’re going to stay open two hours later to see if that helps, because it gets hot here. People have said: “Hey, can you stay open a little later when it’s cooled down a little bit?”

So everything is…Right now, we’re pretty consistent but we are from time to time having to tweak things, to, again, make sure that it’s exactly what is needed for those who have special needs so that they can enjoy this park as much as possible. Remember, that’s our biggest job now: to make sure as many people enjoy this. And when they come to the park, there plenty of enjoyment. It’s amazing. You just have to experience it. That’s all I…You just have to experience the park.

Sharon daVanport: You know, this is just fantastic. It is.

Tricia Kenney: Has this already been going through your head about opening more of these around the country?

Gordon Hartman: [laughs] Well, people contacted us in respect to that, and we’re open to the idea in helping them. I personally have so much going on in the foundation that it’s hard for me to actually go and build another one. But here’s what we will do: I do have people in my office who can help others as to how to put one of these together and get community support for it. I mean, we had to get the community behind this or else this would not have worked.

Tricia Kenney: Right.

Gordon Hartman: I put some money into it. Other individuals put in money, the state, the city and the county all got involved. So far, we’ve raised a little over 28 and a half million dollars for this just in the past 24 months.

Tricia Kenney: Wow.

Sharon daVanport: That’s wonderful. Where can people go to donate? I saw that there’s a donate button on your website at Morgan’s Wonderland.com. Is that where you accept most of your donations right now? Or can they mail them in?

Gordon Hartman: Yeah. They can mail it, and there’s information on there. Everything’s at Morgan’s Wonderland.com if you want to know anything about the park. And if it’s not there, like I said, email us and we’ll get you the information or answer any questions you may have.

Sharon daVanport: That’s just wonderful. I know you could go on and on for hours, but we’re going to be wrapping this up in the next few minutes. Is there anything that you definitely want to add to let our listeners know? Something that you didn’t mention?

Gordon Hartman: Well, here’s the thing I would tell you. Some 50,000 people have registered, and there’s over 12,000 members of Morgan’s Wonderland already so this is catching on. But that number’s very small compared to the overall number of people who can enjoy this. Out of all the thousands who have been there, it’s been nothing but a positive experience. We just want to make sure everybody really has that opportunity.

Sharon daVanport: Right.

Gordon Hartman: And you may not be able to come this year. You may not be able to come until the spring of next year, but get involved now on our Facebook page. Go into Morgan’s Wonderland.com, click on the Facebook page and follow us through the Facebook page. See all the updates that we’re doing and know all the different things that we’re doing to try to get people involved. People magazine will be doing a spread on Morgan’s Wonderland in the next week or two.

Sharon daVanport: Oh, my goodness! That’s wonderful!

Gordon Hartman: And then that kind of stuff will help get out information more to the community, and that’s what we’re trying to do. This thing is beyond what I thought it was going to be three years ago when we started it. It’s bigger, it’s better.

Sharon daVanport: Well, you’d better get ready with the exposure that you’re going to get from People magazine.

Gordon Hartman: Well, we’re ready. We’re ready. We’re ready, yeah.

Sharon daVanport: [laughs] It’s really going to get busy now with that kind of exposure. That’s absolutely fantastic.

Gordon Hartman: Yeah. But being on this show is so important, too, because your listeners really know the importance of a park like this for those who have special needs. They know.

Sharon daVanport: You’re right.

Gordon Hartman: And that’s why I really appreciate the opportunity. This exposure is just as important, because everyone listening knows what it’s like to have a child or adult with special needs. The blessing that we have from them and what we want to do to make sure we make their lives as best as possible, and the park can play a role in that.

Sharon daVanport: Sure. And we will keep this posted, too.

Tricia Kenney: Yes. It’s so wonderful, and you can even have birthday parties there and any type of celebration like that. You have facilities set up for that, or a program set up for that?

Gordon Hartman: We do. We have a full-time person who…Today we’ll have about 10 birthday parties at the park.

Sharon daVanport: Wow. [laughs] That’s so nice. Well, Gordon, we definitely want you to keep us apprised on how things are going, so we’re going to stay in touch. If you’d like to come on again in a couple months and let us know if you’ve decided to adjust any hours for the weather there–any new things that you want–we’ll keep in touch. You can come on anytime and give us an update. We’d really appreciate that.

Gordon Hartman: I would love that opportunity.

Sharon daVanport: Yes. Our listeners would really appreciate that. So I want to thank you so much for being our guest today. We will be in touch, OK?

Gordon Hartman: Sure. Stay in touch. You bet. I’m looking forward to it. Thank you so much. You bet.

Sharon daVanport: Thank you, Gordon.

Tricia Kenney: Thank you, Gordon.

Gordon Hartman: Uh-huh. Bye.

Sharon daVanport: Bye-bye.

Tricia Kenney: Bye.

[Gordon hangs up]

Sharon daVanport: Wow. That is just absolutely fantastic, isn’t it, Trish. My goodness! And People magazine will give them the exposure that they really deserve for such a wonderful amusement park. Oh, my goodness! He could’ve went on, like you said, probably the whole hour! [laughs] To tell everything.

One thing, too, that I want to be able to reiterate is our LifePROTEKT contest. We did mention at the beginning of the show that we are currently taking names from our chat room and phone numbers from the switchboard. What we’re doing is entering them in and we’re going to draw a winner next week. So at the beginning of our show next week, we’re going to have Dr. Paula Kluth on.

Dr. Paula Kluth will join us about 10 minutes after we get started, but the first few minutes, Curtis from b-Calm Sound will be there to draw a name and announce the winner. He has a special announcement, too. They’ve got some new projects going on and he’ll be offering some new prizes as well in the months to come for our listeners.

Tricia Kenney: Right, right.

Sharon daVanport: Did you want to tell them about LifePROTEKT and how they can get a hold of–?

Tricia Kenney: What I wanted to just reiterate was the fact that in Morgan’s Wonderland, they are catering to the fact that so many of us are struggling every day. To have something that’s actually free for our children to go to instead of paying extra, which is generally the case…If you need any accommodations made, you have to pay extra if you have special needs. To have something where it’s free? That’s just an amazing thing for them to do. They didn’t have to do it that way. I just think that’s wonderful, and it shows the heart behind this place.

But anyways, you were asking me about what? LifePROTEKT?

Sharon daVanport: Yes.

Tricia Kenney: I missed it. [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: OK. I just wanted to remind everyone that we have the [queue?] contest going on, and I didn’t want people to forget that we’re ongoing taking their stories for the contest at LifePROTEKT. Lou Giuffre over at LifePROTEKT has generously offered to give away one GPS location device.

Tricia Kenney: Plus a full year of service. And all people have to do is send us a note at info AT autismwomensnetwork DOT org Just send us your name and a little story about why you would want the GPS locator device, and how to get in contact with you. We will enter your name for the contest, and we are doing this once a month.

Sharon daVanport: Once a month, that’s right. OK, well I think that’s going to do it for us here today on AWN radio. I want to thank everybody who joined. Our switchboard was pretty busy today, so I’m sorry we weren’t taking any calls. It didn’t look like the hand was up on the other calls to be connected to the switchboard. So if you did call in to the switchboard and you had intended for us to take your call, they did give an option. Tricia, is it the number one that you hit if you want to speak to us and number two if you just want to listen?

Tricia Kenney: Yeah. Right.

Sharon daVanport: So, yeah. If we didn’t get to your call, it’s because we thought we were just having listeners through the switchboard today. [laughs] We didn’t have that little hand come up and tell us that somebody was waiting in queue.

So I think that’s going to do it for us today. Thank you, Tricia, and I’m glad you finally got through. [laughs] I’m glad I got through.

Tricia Kenney: [laughs]

Sharon daVanport: It was difficult getting through today to the show, but I’m glad that it all worked out. It was fantastic.

Tricia Kenney: Yes, and we’ll see you next week. Who are our guests next week?

Sharon daVanport: Dr. Paula Kluth. She’s going to be on about inclusive classrooms, inclusive education. That is going to be at a different time. We’ve had to adjust it a little bit. Our show starts at 10:30 Central Standard Time next week on Saturday. So it’s going to be 10:30 in the morning. That’s 11:30 AM Eastern. So we’ll see you guys next week, and till then, have a great week, everyone. Bye-bye.

Tricia Kenney: Bye-bye.



One Response

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  1. Adelaide Dupont said, on July 22, 2010 at 2:27 am


    This is easily the most comprehensive transcript about Morgan’s Wonderland that I have ever read.

    I’ve known about it since early this year (2010).

    Do you say Sugey’s name “Soo-gee”?

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