Gordon and Maggie Hartman built Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio in honor of their daughter Morgan, who often inspired others with her smile, despite facing physical and cognitive challenges. The park opened in April of 2010, as the “the world’s first theme park designed with special-needs individuals in mind and built for everyone’s enjoyment.” Morgan’s is “completely wheelchair-accessible” and free of charge to anyone with a special need.
What makes such a park so significant? Individuals with disabilities can easily find themselves on the sidelines because their opportunities for recreation are much more limited than those for most of us. Many of the leisure activities the general populace takes for granted require abilities that some people don’t possess, e.g., complete mobility, fast reflexes, vision, hearing, etc.
Some may be thinking, “But, doesn’t the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) demand accessibility for people with disabilities?” Yes, the law passed in 1990 and modified several times since, “prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities” and “requires that all new facilities built by public accommodations, including small businesses, must be accessible to and usable by people with disabilities.” As of 2010, the act even pertains to specific recreational categories, including amusement rides, play areas, swimming pools, and wading pools.
However, ADA accommodation doesn’t extend particularly far when it comes to providing equal amusement opportunity. For existing structures, businesses only need to remove architectural barriers when doing so is “readily achievable,” which means "easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense”—a measure that’s relative to the firm’s size and resources.
For newly built or altered facilities, the law is somewhat more stringent, demanding that such new construction is “accessible to individuals with disabilities." Still, there are limits to what businesses need to do. Companies are required to make “reasonable modifications” to serve people with disabilities, but businesses aren’t obligated to adapt in ways that would disrupt their normal customer service or otherwise create an “undue burden.”
Now, back to “play.” How might ADA requirements impact people with disabilities who would like to enjoy the wet and wild time of a waterpark? In most cases, not very well. For instance, the park might build ramps or install lifts to give people with wheel chairs access to play areas, but that entry is irrelevant if waterproof wheelchairs aren’t available or if the placement of water jets isn’t friendly to wheels.
That’s where Morgan’s Wonderland is different. Rather than resting on the laurels of its already significant service to those with special needs, the company has decided to keep innovating and expanding. So, just last month, it opened Morgan’s Inspiration Island, “the world’s first ultra-accessible splash park where guests of all ages and abilities can get wet and have fun together.”
For instance, Inspiration Island features Rainbow Reef, a splash pad with heated water, specially created for people who cannot tolerate regular temperature water. There’s also Shipwreck Island, which boasts an accessible pirate ship. In addition, the park provides “three types of waterproof wheelchairs that fit a variety of heights and sizes.”
What do these unique amenities mean in terms of Morgan’s marketing? While other companies make basic changes to their facilities just to comply with minimal ADA requirements, Morgan’s Wonderland intentionally targets individuals with disabilities and their families, significantly adapting its marketing mix for their benefit. Morgan’s mission is to serve and satisfy these special customers.
All that may sound good, but is operating an amusement park for underserved consumers just a work of charity? Is there really potential in the amusement industry for this market? Apparently there is, given that Morgan’s has completed such an ambitious expansion just seven years after the main amusement park opened. Morgan’s also has struck a smart strategic alliance with Toyota. The global automotive giant has been “a leader in mobility solutions for drivers with disabilities,” making it a natural fit to become the park’s presenting sponsor.
It’s also worth noting that individuals with disabilities represent more than a niche market: 50 million Americans, or 18% of the population, have disabilities. Most organizations would be thrilled to have that many potential customers.
Meeting the needs of any target market is tough. Satisfying the special needs of those with disabilities requires even greater resolve, but Morgan’s Wonderland has shown itself more than worthy of such challenges, similar to the courageous individuals it serves. For this reason, Morgan’s is an inspiring example of “Mindful Marketing.”