While sitting in his office in San Antonio, Texas, Gordon Hartman pulls out a postcard he received from a 6-year-old guest who recently visited Morgan’s Wonderland, the ultra-accessible theme park he built with special love for those with disabilities.
“It says, ‘I love my day at your place. I told my mom and dad I want to come back every year,’ ” Hartman reads aloud. ” ‘We also went to Disneyland this summer, but it has nothing on Morgan’s!’ “
The sweet message is one of many interactions that Hartman has had over the eight years since the opening of his unique theme park, which he envisioned after seeing his then 12-year-old daughter, Morgan, have trouble making friends during a family vacation.
The scene lead Hartman to design a public place where Morgan, who is on the autism spectrum and experiences a cognitive delay, could be herself without feeling alienated from others. For Hartman, this meant a space that kept the needs of both those with and without disabilities in mind from the start.
“What Morgan’s Wonderland represents in many ways is this culture that is ultra accessible and fully inclusive,” Hartman, 54, tells PEOPLE. “When we say ultra accessibility that means that we’re dealing with ensuring that 100 percent of the population, not 88 percent of the population, or 90 percent of the population. It’s for everybody.”
Hartman sold off his homebuilding business in 2005 to start the Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, and collaborated with a team of architects, engineers, doctors, and therapists to build the $35 million park. Wonderland opened in 2010, and last August the foundation revealed Morgan’s Inspiration Island, a fully-accessible $17 million water park, which just made TIME’s list of “World’s Greatest Places.”
“One of the reasons that I think we had success with that is because we really spent a lot of time, and I’m talking a lot of time, in a lot of meetings, with special needs individuals, parents, caregivers, grandparents, therapists,” Hartman says. “Anybody who was involved in some way with the special needs community, we heard what their thoughts were before we moved any dirt.”
While the dual parks offer a place for families to have fun, the nonprofit has gone a step further by making admission is free for anyone with a physical or mental disability. A portion of the park’s employees include people with special needs as well.
But the parks do operate at a loss, Hartman says, to the tune of about $1.4 million a year. The park greatly depends on donations and fundraisers, and from their sponsorship with Toyota.
“We have to run the business as tightly as we can, in keeping losses as low as we can,” Hartman explains. “I’m the person who runs all the park, and even the highest paid person is not at six figures. We pay for passion, we pay people because they want to be there, not because they want a big paycheck. That’s pretty big to us.”
Morgan, who is soon turning 25, loves playing on the swings and riding the train at Wonderland. But Hartman and his wife, Maggie, don’t usually accompany Morgan during the activities — she prefers playing with her many friends, he says.
There are signs the country is moving to a more inclusive society, Hartman says, and he hopes to see more communities incorporate the needs of people with disabilities into the design of their public places. But he is happy people are taking notice of his theme parks and the joy that such places could bring for so many families. That’s why he has no plans of slowing down.
“I’ve got the most fulfilling job in the world and that’s why I want to do more,” he says. “That’s why we’re going to do more.”