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Texas theme park reopens following a major expansion to its accessible rides

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Visiting amusement parks can be a challenge for some people living with certain disabilities. But in San Antonio, there is a one-of-its-kind theme park that is designed with accessibility in mind. Jackie Velez with Texas Public Radio has this report.

JACKIE VELEZ, BYLINE: When you enter Morgan's Wonderland, it looks like any other theme park. There's a roller coaster, a zip line, a Ferris wheel, the smell of fresh popcorn. But you won't find the long lines or loud noises, and it's free for people with a disability. All of the rides are wheelchair accessible, like the new zipline they just installed. The zip line glides over a catch-and-release fishing lake with a view of the park's gardens and playgrounds.

VICTORIA GARCIA EMMETT: It's just simply mind-blowing to know that there's a place like this where we can enjoy the things that most people, typical people, are afforded to them.

VELEZ: That's Victoria Garcia Emmett (ph), who's waiting to get on the ride with her daughter, Emily. Her daughter has severe epilepsy and a rare genetic birth condition of the brain that causes mobility issues and hinders her from verbal communication.

GARCIA EMMETT: I think the excitement of just simply being able to have my daughter accomplish something that she would ordinarily never be able to do without the help of the modifications to make something like this is possible. It's truly just mind-blowing.

VELEZ: Megan Kirschner (ph) agrees. She has three children who all have a sensory processing disorder and are on the autism spectrum. She brings them here regularly.

MEGAN KIRSCHNER: It takes us several days after SeaWorld to actually recover from going, whereas I feel like Morgan's Wonderland - we've come multiple times in a week because it's just such an appropriate level for my kids to be able to access all the different activities...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Mom.

KIRSCHNER: ...Without it being overstimulating.

VELEZ: Morgan's Wonderland has seen over 4 million visitors from every state in the U.S. and 120 countries since it first opened in 2010. Since then, they've completed a $6 million renovation. They've added a fully inclusive sports field, a community center and, most recently, a salon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Look at you. You look so good today.

VELEZ: The Morgan Salon features wheelchair-accessible stations for hair and nail services. The staff are trained to accommodate people like Miranda Raabe (ph), who has cerebral palsy.

MIRANDA RAABE: I'm able to just roll my chair up to this space right here that is open. And I was just able to get my haircut like everyone else.

VELEZ: The 32-year-old says this is the first time in her life she was able to enjoy getting a haircut.

RAABE: It's way more relaxing than a regular salon because I feel like, sometimes, they're anxious, so it makes us more anxious.

VELEZ: Morgan's Wonderland was founded by former San Antonio homebuilder Gordon Hartman. It's named after his daughter. She has a rare genetic disease that causes severe cognitive issues, which makes it difficult for her to communicate. The inspiration for the park, he says, came from a family vacation when Morgan wanted to play with kids in a pool.

GORDON HARTMAN: She couldn't communicate with them and say, hey, guys, can I play? Instead, she hit the ball. That was her way to try to communicate.

VELEZ: The kids grabbed the ball and left the pool.

HARTMAN: It really hit me because there I was watching as a father, recognizing that Morgan just wanted to play, just to be involved, be included.

VELEZ: Hartman's next project is the world's first ultra-accessible hotel.

HARTMAN: Fifteen of the population has some form of special need, and a third of that 15% requires assistance every day to get through their day, Morgan being one of them.

VELEZ: Hartman acknowledges that it will be a tall order to replicate this around the country, so Morgan's is creating a training program to teach corporate leaders how to make their businesses more accessible. For NPR News, I'm Jackie Velez in San Antonio.

(SOUNDBITE OF FAVOURITE PEOPLE'S "SHELL ISLAND") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jackie Velez