How Do You Build a Water Park for People with Special Needs?

A rendering of one of the park’s five splash pads, Calypso Cove.
A rendering of one of the park’s five splash pads, Calypso Cove.

The attractions at most water parks, fun as they are, are predictable.

There are multicolored slides that contort and bend in various ways. There's some sort of lazy river that ferries bodies and tubes in a slow circle. And there's probably a log flume, or something similar that aims to soak riders and spectators with a huge splash.

But what if many of the park's visitors are in wheelchairs? Or are blind, deaf or can't linger in cold water? What does a water park look like then?

Those are the questions that Gordon Hartman and others have answered in the design of Morgan's Inspiration Island, the world's first splash park for people with special needs. Hartman runs the San Antonio-based Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, which provides grants, consultations and other services to people with special needs and the organizations that help them.

Hartman opened Morgan's Wonderland, the world's first all-inclusive theme park for people with special needs, in 2010, adjacent to Toyota Field. The park is named for his daughter, who has a cognitive delay.

The idea for a water park stems all the way back to the first discussions for Morgan's Wonderland, but the time and resources necessary to complete such an undertaking just weren't there at the time.

click to enlarge Castaway Bay
Castaway Bay

Still, the idea lingered. And as Hartman watched the San Antonio sun scorch the park and its visitors over the years, integrating water started to seem imperative.

"We started hearing more and more about how [visitors] wish there was water," Hartman said. "It's very hot here ... and every child and every adult likes to enjoy the water. The feeling was that those with special needs, in particular, have a desire to enjoy water as well."

But Hartman wasn't willing to compromise keeping the park open to all — no matter what their needs. And that meant crafting some one-of-a-kind solutions.

The park, which will likely open in the spring of 2017, will cost $12 million to build. Its actual value will be much higher, though, since much of the time, labor and materials will be donated. Together with Morgan's Wonderland, the new total size of the parks will be just under 30 acres.

There's plenty to do between now and then. While most of the design and planning is complete, the park has yet to be built. It will include five "splash pads," each with a different theme and set of activities. Calypso Cove combines splashy play with interactive musical instruments, set within a mystical forest. Another pad, Castaway Bay, includes a treehouse with water cannons and a "Kids Only" fort.

The common thread that binds the pads is they'll be accessible to everyone. The park's designers have ensured that through an array of creative innovations.

click to enlarge Hang Harbor
Hang Harbor

People who use wheelchairs, for example, will use a specially modified one to move through the water, provided by the park. There will be special areas where they can transfer from one wheelchair to another in privacy. That goes for electric wheelchairs, too, which will be waterproofed.

"A lot of the people in electric wheelchairs, they value their independence. They don't want to be transferred into a chair that makes someone have to push them around through the park," said Tracie Ochoa, one of the park's main designers.

One of the splash pads, Rainbow Reef, will have heated water for people who experience muscle pain from exposure to colder water. The pad will feature a giant octopus and seahorses that shoot jets of water, as well as geysers and other water features.

The main feature of another pad, Shipwreck Island, is a multilevel pirate ship with water cannons and a slide. Each level of the ship is still accessible to people in wheelchairs through double-wide ramps. The ramps are concealed by trees and rocks that blend in with the other decorations on the pad.

"There are no steps at any of these areas in the park where someone in a wheelchair would say, 'I'd like to do that but I can't,'" Hartman said.

Attached to the pirate ship is a bucket that slowly fills up with water before dumping its contents onto the ground — and on anyone standing underneath. The buckets are a common water park feature, and a sound typically plays right before the bucket drops. To help hearing-impaired guests, the bucket at Shipwreck Island will also have a visual cue to give them notice before getting soaked.

click to enlarge Shipwreck Island
Shipwreck Island

Accommodating any possible need while keeping guests safe is tough enough on dry land. Adding water complicates matters.

"There's a lot of liability. It's slippery, you're dealing with people who from time to time may decide to just run," Hartman said. "But we believe positioning people at certain locations ... that yes, we can manage this."

Eliminating risk entirely is impossible in any park. But officials at Morgan's Inspiration Island have taken steps to reduce and manage it as much as possible.

Except for a river ride where participants won't actually touch the water, any standing water in the park will be too shallow to submerge in, lowering the risk of drowning. There will also be staff standing by to monitor each of the pads.

"There's a ton of planning and thought and research that goes into all of this, but kids are kids, you just don't know," Ochoa said. "We didn't have a book to go by, we were writing the book."

Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.