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Wheelchairs at the water park bring fun in the sun for all

In hot and sunny Texas, Morgan’s Inspiration Island calls itself a park of inclusion for those with special needs of all kinds -- and everyone else, too.

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Bella Edwards and Amelia McDonald play together at Morgan's Inspiration Island.

Robin Jerstad/Jerstad Photographics

This is part of CNET's "Tech Enabled" series about the role technology plays in helping the disability community.

Who knew water cannons were the stuff of serious BFF encounters?

That's exactly how Bella Edwards, 8, and Amelia McDonald, 3, bonded -- amid the cannon's spray, the two kids chatted about Edwards' condition, a spinal defect called spina bifida that keeps her bound to a wheelchair. Now they can't stop talking about seeing each other again.

Edwards and McDonald met earlier this month at Morgan's Inspiration Island, a water park in San Antonio that stresses accessibility. While the park opened its doors June 17, the girls were both part of a group chosen to try out the rides before the official opening.

Morgan's Inspiration Island is the first water park designed from the start to be accessible for all visitors. Accessibility is a cause that the technology industry, too, has taken up, working to ensure that services and products can be used by anyone. Venues like stadiums, movie theaters and, yes, theme parks have improved how they cater to the disability community, but Morgan's goes a step further.

"That's what Morgan's is about," said Sue Idskou, Edwards' grandmother. "This 3-year-old girl that was real shy and able-bodied just hanging out with the kid in the wheelchair, like it was nothing. They're able to play together. ... That's inclusion."

It all started seven years ago. Gordon and Maggie Hartman, founders of the The Gordon Hartman Family Foundation, drew inspiration from their daughter Morgan, who was born with physical and cognitive disabilities, to create Morgan's Wonderland. The central Texas theme park also accommodates individuals with special needs.

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Shipwreck Island is a pirate themed splash pad that features a double slide, complete with a wheelchair ramp.

Robin Jerstad/Jerstad Photographics

Given the San Antonio heat, incorporating water became a necessity so visitors could enjoy themselves for longer periods of time without being overwhelmed by the sun. That's why the Hartmans built Morgan's Inspiration Island, a sister park to Wonderland, complete with five Caribbean-themed splash pads and a boat ride.

"Of course I would love to have all parks be fully accessible to everyone, but since this isn't the case in reality, taking the bull by the horns and saying 'We will build one to meet all needs' is a pretty amazing thing," said Michael Christopher Tabakin, CEO of IHI International, a nonprofit that focuses on international projects to support people with disabilities.

The park is free to people with special needs. Otherwise tickets cost between $12 and $15, depending on your age. Dual admission to both Morgan's Inspiration Island and Morgan's Wonderland is also offered.

"What we have developed is five large areas of play within the water park where no matter how acute someone's special need may be -- cognitive needs, physical special needs, hearing impairments or visual impairments -- they can enjoy the water park alongside someone who may have no special needs," said Gordon Hartman.

"Ultra-accessible" adjustments

While Morgan's Inspiration Island caters to special needs, Hartman stressed that it's meant for everyone. For every four people who come into the park, he said, just one of them will have special needs.

For the disability community, the creative additions make all the difference.

There are three types of waterproof wheelchairs in various heights and sizes and adjustable nozzles that allow visitors and  caregivers to change the pressure of the water streams to meet their level of comfort. For the visually impaired, a sound goes off to signal the water is about to splash. For the hearing impaired, the cue is a whirling circle. One splash pad, called Rainbow Reef, offers heated water for the temperature-sensitive.

"Every ride here is similar to some ride that you would see in another park, but what's different about it is we've taken a timeout and made minor adjustments to them to ensure that they're ultra-accessible," said Hartman.

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Adjustable waterproof wheelchairs are provided at the park free of charge and are first come, first serve.

Robin Jerstad/Jerstad Photographics

One of the biggest challenges, according to Tracie Ochoa Sheffield, creative director at the park, was being able to accommodate visitors in electric wheelchairs. A pneumatic wheelchair called PneuChair -- designed specifically for the park -- takes care of this problem. It's powered by compressed air and works like a regular electric chair, but it's safe to use in water.

"The PneuChair uses a simpler design without a lot of electronics and software," said Brandon Daveler, a University of Pittsburgh grad student who's also the lead mechanical design engineer on the wheelchair project, in a statement. "If something goes wrong, any of the components can be purchased at your local hardware store."

The PneuChair, along with the two other manual wheelchair options, is free of charge and operates on a first come, first served basis for visitors.

"For our guests that need the mobility but they don't want to give up their independence, it's like the perfect solution for them to be able to enjoy themselves," said Sheffield.

Early buzz

Morgan's Inspiration Island may have just opened, but Sheffield said it has received substantial feedback.

"[People] are saying that this is truly life-changing for some of these families because all of the siblings can play together," Sheffield said.

The Hartman family's dedication to supporting the disabled community doesn't stop at theme parks. Next door to Morgan's Wonderland is their academy for special needs, meant for individuals from age 12 to 24.

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Custom nozzles allow for visitors to adjust the water to their desired pressure.

Robin Jerstad/Jerstad Photographics

In 2020, Hartman plans to open a multipurpose center addressing medical work in the dental and eyesight areas, and a place where caregivers and parents can work directly with social workers.

Hartman said the park gives people with disabilities and their families an opportunity to engage in an activity that's "just considered normal."

"[People] are coming up to me or others in the park and saying this is the first time my brother, this is the first time my uncle, this is the first my mom has been able to do this or that," Hartman said. "That's what brings smiles to us and makes what we're doing here very fulfilling."

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