ATU358 – Morgan’s Wonderland update with Bob McCullough

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Your weekly dose of information that keeps you up to date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs.

Show notes:
Morgan’s Wonderland update – Bob McCullough, Communications Director | morganswonderland.com | 210-495-5888
Vibrating shirt gives deaf people the chance to ‘feel’ music – Borneo Bulletin Online http://bit.ly/2GCob5W

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BOB McCULLOUGH:  Hi, this is Bob McCULLOUGH, communications director for Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas, and this is your assistive technology update.

WADE WINGLER:  Hi, this is Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana with your Assistive Technology Update, a weekly dose of information that keeps you up-to-date on the latest developments in the field of technology designed to assist people with disabilities and special needs. Welcome to episode number 358 of assistive technology update.  It’s scheduled to be released on April 6, 2018.

Today I have a long overdue a follow-up conversation with the folks at Morganza Wonderland in Texas, a theme park that is amazingly accessible.  Also we have a story about a vibrating shirt that helps people who are deaf or hard of hearing and gives them a chance to feel music.  We hope will check out our website at EasterSealsTech.com, sent us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or call our listener line.  We love to hear from you.  The number is 317-721-7124.

Like this show? Check out ATFAQ, assistive technology frequently asked questions.  It’s a very interactive show where we get your questions and throw them in front of our assistive technology experts.  Check it out wherever you get your podcast, or ATFAQshow.com.

I’ve often heard that music is the universal language. The story we’re talking about today is from Germany through the Borneo bulletin.  It’s talking about a group of researchers who have created a device, a shirt actually, designed to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing to experience music in a different way.  It’s described as a tightfitting blue jacket with synthetic fibers and 16 tiny motors, connected to eight microphones that convert sounds into vibrations.  Claudia Weyel, who was attending a performance of The Lion King in Hamburg, said that it was a totally exciting experience that she was thrilled.  It was a wonderfully beautiful experience that she would love to have again.

I’ve often heard of many technology devices designed to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing have a more tactile experience in a show or concert hall or movie.  I’ve heard of things like butt kicker speakers that shake the seat to give everybody a more immersive experience.  Before you go out to buy one of these sound shirts, you want to know that it’s an experimental device that is currently costing 20,000 Euro or 24,000 or so US dollars.  It’s very much in research mode right now and was paid for by an advertising agency called Jung von Matt, the place that came up with the idea for the project.

It is an interesting story and I’ve got a lot of people in my circles talking about it, so I’ll pop a link in the show notes over to the Borneo bulletin where you can read more about this vibrating shirt designed to give people who are deaf or hard of hearing a different experience with music.

You all know that I tend to record shows a little bit in advance.  I happen to be recording this show on the very first day of spring here in Indiana.  If I look out the window, I see snow.  I want it to be springtime, I want to be excited, but I have to say it’s a little hard to look forward to the spring and summer time with snow here in Indiana today.  That being said, we are going to do that anyway.  In fact, about five years ago, we did an interview with the group called Morgan’s Wonderland out of Texas that was sort of a fairly new concept having to do with accessibility and amusement parks.  What is summertime without an amusement park? I happen to know that a lot of things have changed since we had the folks from Morgan’s Wonderland on the show.  Today we are joined by Bob McCULLOUGH who was the communications director.  He is going to tell us the basics of Morgan’s Wonderland and the stuff that I am most interested in, which is what’s new and different.  Bob, welcome to the show.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  Thank you so much, Wade.  Speaking of spring, it is going to be clear skies and about 80 degrees in San Antonio today.

WADE WINGLER:  Stop it.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  We just came out of spring break last week, and the weather was gorgeous.  We had lots of visitors from all over Texas and the region.  We are off to a good start for spring of 2018.

WADE WINGLER:  I thought we were going to be friends, but you just ruined it.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  I’m so sorry.  We rarely have to shovel snow in South Texas, thank goodness.

WADE WINGLER:  We do some in Indiana, but that should be the tail end of it.  We should be nice soon.  I’m excited to have you on the show today.  Before we start talking about Morgan’s Wonderland, tell me a little bit more about yourself and how you became involved with the project.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  I’m the most fortunate guy in the world.  I’ve had a 40 plus year in corporate indications.  When I retired several years ago — I hate that word — I was able to pitch my wagon to the Morgan’s Wonderland star.  Before the part opened, I helped communicate what this magnificent park is all about.  Actually, it’s gone so much better in addition to the theme park — and I’ll talk about a new addition to Morgan’s Wonderland in just a moment — there is also a school next door to the park called the Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland.  It’s for students with special needs.  My daughter, my 19-year-old daughter is a student there.  I get to come and have fun at Morgan’s Wonderland, communicating Morgan’s Wonderland, and she gets to go next door to the Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland.  The thing I always like to point out about the Academy, they do a fantastic job of helping a young person build on their strengths and try to prepare properly for work and adulthood.  Where do you think the Academy students to go for their physical education? The theme park! Isn’t that the neatest thing? You’ll see during physical education classes my daughter and other students out and join the part.  They have their three-wheel bicycle, tricycle, and they are zooming around our lake and just having the best time.  If you come to the Academy at Morgan’s Wonderland, you could to have PE at a theme park.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s funny.  I’m in Indianapolis, but I don’t think any of the kids near the track it to go around the Indianapolis 500 for their physical education.  That’s pretty cool.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  You bet.

WADE WINGLER:  Let’s get into the Genesis story about Morgan’s Wonderland a little bit.  We covered it, but it’s been about five years.  Tell people the story about how Morgan’s Wonderland came to be.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  Morgan’s Wonderland is the brainchild of an absolutely charismatic individual by the name of Gordon Hartman.  Gordon has a daughter who is name is Morgan.  Morgan is now 24 years old.  He tells the story that when they were on vacation several years ago, they were in a hotel swimming pool, and there were some kids at one end of the pool tossing a ball around.  You could tell that Morgan really wanted to interact and get involved in that play activity, but the other kids kind of looked at Morgan and knew that she had perhaps some special needs.  They took their ball and exited the pool.  That just confused and saddened Morgan to know end.  Gordon tells the story that the look on her face was devastating.  He decided to come up with a concept where a play is the common denominator, where you can bring together people with and without special needs and a barrier free environment for fun and better understanding of one another.  That’s the Genesis of Morgan’s Wonderland.

I will say also that Mister Hartman was a very successful homebuilder in San Antonio.  Before this episode in the hotel swimming pool, he had sold his homebuilding business, so he was trying to figure out what he was going to do for the rest of his life.  Sure enough, this idea came forth about Morgan’s Wonderland.  The park was built, and it’s a spectacular park, very colorful and uplifting place to be.  The park opened in spring of 2010, and already since that time we have welcomed well over 1 million visitors from all over 50 states and now the total is up to 69 other countries.  Morgan’s Wonderland, as far as we know, is the only theme park of its kind in the world that is specifically designed for those with special needs, both cognitive and physical.  It’s also for everyone, anyone and everyone can have a great time enjoying Morgan’s Wonderland.

WADE WINGLER:  It was Mister Hartman that came on the show early on.  Tell him we said hello and are so proud of things have gone so well in the last few years.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  I’ll be happy to.

WADE WINGLER:  When we spoke initially, we talked about some of the features of the part.  I would like for you to recap some of those.  What makes this an ultra accessible park? And some of the new things as well.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  To make it ultra accessible means if you are in a wheelchair or have a cognitive or other physical type of challenge, you can do everything that everyone else can do in the park.  For instance, we have rides, and all those are wheelchair accessible.  We have our colorful carousel.  We have a train ride.  We have what we call the offered adventure ride, which is SUVs going throughout the countryside.  Our latest addition in terms of rides is a beautiful, colorful fares will.  We call it the Whirling Wonder.  When you come to Morgan’s Wonderland, you can take advantage of every ride we have available.

The other thing that is very important about Morgan’s Wonderland is if you have a physical or cognitive special need, you get in free of charge, no questions asked.  That has been the policy since the very beginning.  In fact, we try to make Morgan’s Wonderland, which spreads out over 25 acres in an abandoned rock quarry, we try to make it as affordable and barrier free as possible.  The top ticket price that you would pay is $17, and that’s for an entire day of fun.  Again, we try to make it as affordable as possible, free for those with special needs, and we have discounts for seniors, discounts for military.

Our emphasis is on bringing people together for fun and understanding.  We are dedicated to trying to bring cost as low as possible.  That includes concessions and food and things like that.  We do have snack bars.  If you want to bring your own food and drink to the part, we have the picnic place where you can have your meal.  We realize that many families with special needs individuals are on tight budgets because they are paying for therapists or doctors or pharmaceutical bills and things like that, so we do everything we can to make Morgan’s Wonderland as affordable as possible.

WADE WINGLER:  In terms of the food, sometimes there are dietary needs that are hard to match at a concession stand.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  Absolutely.  But if you want chicken strips or pretzels or things of that nature, more traditional theme park foods, we have a selection of those as well.  If you have dietary restrictions or are on a tight budget, you may bring your own food.  That’s a lot different than most theme parks.

WADE WINGLER:  What does a typical day at the park look like, especially if it is a family who has members with disabilities?

BOB McCULLOUGH:  We have one entrance to the park.  That’s what we call our welcome center.  We have a phenomenal staff that is there to welcome our guests.  If you so desire, we also have RFID wristbands where there are various elements of the park that, if you scan that wristband, we have location stations.  If everyone in the group has an RFID band on it, you can notice where all of the members of that party are scattered throughout the park.  There are various picture spots where if you scan your wristband, we can send a photograph of you for a piece of artwork back to your home computer.  We do have a good bit of technology available at Morgan’s Wonderland.

Basically, when you arrive at Morgan’s Wonderland, you can get a park map.  You can get your questions answered about when we have special shows and attractions and what not.  Then we hope that the family or group or our guests will go out and have a very leisurely experience.  Our goal is not on the total number of guests.  Ours is more qualitative than quantitative.  We don’t want you to be rust.  We want you to be able to enjoy each and — we have about 25 different attractions in the park.  In addition to the rides, we have play areas, play scapes.  One of the most popular activities, believe it or not, is fishing.  We have catch and release fishing in our Lake.  We have an eight acre lake which is a holdover of the quarry operations from yesteryear.  A lot of folks who have special needs have never caught a fish before.  It’s a real thrill when, for instance, a person in a wheelchair can head out onto what we call the wharf.  They can roll it up to the edge of the water and drop a line.  Who knows? They might end up with a 5 to 10 pound catch fish or a big perch or a bass.  Sometimes a simple things are the most impactful.  Speaking of the lake, we have the walk and roll trail around the lake, where if you are in a wheelchair, you can enjoy the beauty of the park, rolling around the lake.  Or you can walk, and there are rest areas along the way.

There are so many different things and so many different expenses that we have.  For example, the other day, during spring break, we had special shows at our amphitheater.  The amphitheater is also on the shoreline of the lake.  We had dog shows, puppet shows, musical performances.  In addition to our fixed assets, the rides and other attractions, we also offer a wide range of special entertainment so that it at even more to a typical day at Morgan’s Wonderland.

WADE WINGLER:  I know some of those things have been there like the lake — by the way, I’m a fisherman, so you are speaking my love language.  I know some of that stuff is old, but there have been a lot of things that have changed in the last five years since we’ve talked about Morgan’s Wonderland on this program.  Tell me some of those.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  As I mentioned, we added the whirling wonder Ferris wheel, which is so colorful.  You get up about five and a half stories high, you can see a great panoramic view of Morgan’s Wonderland and the surrounding area.  That includes our newest addition.  This past summer, we opened Morgan’s Inspiration Island.  Morgan’s Inspiration Island is the first ultra accessible splash park anywhere in the world.  It is tropically themed, has six major attractions.  You were talking about the snow in Indiana, but in San Antonio get it can get hot in the summer time.  This is a way that our guests can come in splash and play and have a cooling experience when they come to Morgan’s Wonderland.

That opened this past June, and almost immediately we were notified by the World Waterpark Association that we had been given their “leading edge” award, because some of the things that are so different.  Again, it’s completely wheelchair accessible.  One of the really incredible things about Morgan’s Inspiration Island are the waterproof wheelchairs.  We have so many guests that come to us in battery-powered wheelchairs.  Those wheelchairs are expensive, and you can’t afford to get them wet.  Our visionary founder worked with the University of Pittsburg on a new type of wheelchair which is powered by compressed air.  It’s called Pneu-chair, P-N-E-U chair, or pneumatic chair.  It can become totally doused or complete the wet, and the guest can still enjoy all the activities at Morgan’s Inspiration Island.  We also have other types of waterproof wheelchairs.  There are chairs where the guests can provide mobility by himself or herself, or there are push type chairs as well.  If you do come to Morgan’s Inspiration Island, please know that you can leave your expensive wheelchair at what we call the wheelchair valet, and you can transfer from your chair into one of our waterproof wheelchairs.  It’s been such a pleasure to see folks who you would think would not normally be able to get out and splash and play, and they can have just as much fun as everyone else.

WADE WINGLER:  That’s fascinating.  As I was looking over the website, gearing up for the interview, I also know there are some educational programs as well.  Did I get that right?

BOB McCULLOUGH:  Absolutely.  You mentioned spring, and we are getting ready to begin our spring round of educational field trips.  On 20 days each spring and an equal number of days in the fall, we invite school to bring students out to Morgan’s Wonderland.  We have learning stations throughout the park.  These elementary school students can come and learn about science, math, different academic disciplines.  The learning stations were created through what we call the Education Service Center.  That is an organization in San Antonio that helps schools with their curriculum and lessons and things like that.  We went to them, and they helped us create these learning stations throughout Morgan’s Wonderland.  Let’s face it.  When learning is fun, the retention levels go way up.  These kids come out and have a great day learning in a beautiful, outdoor, uplifting environment.  I do believe that they go away with a higher retention rate, if you will, because they were in such a positive, uplifting environment.

WADE WINGLER:  That makes a lot of sense.  Is the park open year-round, or is it seasonal?

BOB McCULLOUGH:  It’s a seasonal.  We opened up the first part of March.  Typically in the spring and fall, we are open on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.  Then come Memorial Day, we are open pretty much daily up until mid-August.  We follow the calendar of most of the school district and the San Antonio District.  We do have activities going on throughout the year, but basically we are open from March to the end of December.  Not open every day, so it’s important to check our website to make sure that the day you want to come we will be open.

WADE WINGLER:  If folks are thinking about a visit — and I think it sounds like a lot of fun does what kind of tips would you have for them to plan a successful visit?

BOB McCULLOUGH:  I would arrive fairly early in the day so you have plenty of time to see and experience everything.  This is particularly true during the warmer weather months.  As I indicated earlier, it can get warm in San Antonio, especially in the mid to late afternoon.  You might want to plan your visit, or at least of your visit earlier in the morning.  You want to bring the sunscreen and hats and other gear that are important for outdoor activity.  If you want to bring your own food or snacks or whatever, that’s perfectly permissible.  We try to make it as easy and laid-back and relaxed as we possibly can.

If you have any questions about what to bring or what you can to bring, we can direct you to our phone number and you can call and gather additional information that way.  Basically, just like any outdoor activity, you want to bring the appropriate attire and hats and sunscreen and things like that.

WADE WINGLER:  What kinds of things are on the horizon for Morgan’s Wonderland? What’s in the future?

BOB McCULLOUGH:  The area where Morgan’s Wonderland sets, as I indicated before, is a former rock quarry.  There is additional land available that Mister Hartman plans to develop into additional facilities to help the special needs community.  We are hoping to make a big announcement later this year on some of the things that he is working on right now, but I’ll give you a sneak preview.  One of the things is called the MAC, and the MAC is an acronym for Multi-Assistance Center.  He is wanting to build something on the order of 80,000 square feet of space for a facility where if an individual comes to the back and request assistance, that they can be referred to various entities and agencies that help the special needs community.  In other words, is like a one-stop location for getting assistance if you have a particular special need. The other part of this is he has always wanted to provide additional medical care and dental care for those with special needs.  When you go to medical school or dental school, as far as we know, there are no curricula that focus on special needs individuals.  He’s hoping to change that here in the MAC.

There are several other projects on the drawing board as well.  One of them is there are a number of camps located in the hill country near San Antonio.  These are like summer camps for individuals.  He has acquired some land very close to San Antonio where we hope to offer more of a year-round summer camp for the special needs community, which would also include equestrian activities and swimming and other things you would normally associate with his summer camp.  That’s also on the drawing board.

We are working with one of the school districts, the Northeast Independent School District in San Antonio, on athletic fields specifically designed for special needs athletes.  Having said that, we also have a program at Morgan’s Wonderland called STRAPS, the South Texas Regional Adaptive Paralympic Sports Program.  We have physically challenged athletes that play wheelchair basketball and wheelchair soccer and about a dozen sports.  A lot of veterans who are living in the San Antonio area, they also take advantage of the STRAPS sports program.  In fact, we are located only five or six miles away from Fort Sam Houston, the home of military medicine for the military.  They treat a lot of folks who have suffered wounds and injuries in combat situations.  Some of those athletes come here to Morgan’s Wonderland and participate in the STRAPS program.

So the future for Morgan’s Wonderland is incredibly bright, a lot of good things on the horizon.  It all started with Morgan’s Wonderland, and the mothership, so to speak, it’s as popular as ever.  We are anticipating a very busy summer, especially now that we have a cooling component in Morgan’s Inspiration Island.

WADE WINGLER:  I know there are people listening who are going to want to visit.  To do that, they need to learn more about the specifics.  Give that contact information, website, phone number, those kinds of things.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  Very easy.  Our website is MorgansWonderland.com.  There is no punctuation in Morgan’s Wonderland.  The phone number is 210-495-5888.  Both the website and the call in phone number, information is readily available.

WADE WINGLER:  A Bob McCullough is the communications director at Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, Texas.  Thanks so much for being on the show today.

BOB McCULLOUGH:  It’s been a real pleasure.  Thank you so much.

WADE WINGLER:  Do you have a question about assistive technology? Do you have a suggestion for someone we should interview on Assistive Technology Update? Call our listener line at 317-721-7124, shoot us a note on Twitter @INDATAProject, or check us out on Facebook. Looking for a transcript or show notes from today’s show? Head on over to www.EasterSealstech.com. Assistive Technology Update is a proud member of the Accessibility Channel. Find more shows like this plus much more over at AccessibilityChannel.com. That was your Assistance Technology Update. I’m Wade Wingler with the INDATA Project at Easter Seals Crossroads in Indiana.

***Transcript provided by TJ Cortopassi.  For requests and inquiries, contact tjcortopassi@gmail.com***