5223 David Edwards, (210) 495-5888, morganswonderland.com
Water, sand, swings and trains are as universal as it gets for child’s play. Billed as “the world’s first ultra-accessible theme park,” Morgan’s Wonderland was designed specifically for special needs children, but it easily appeals to all kids. Only a few years old, the 25-acre park is fresh, spacious, friendly and relaxed. While it features traditional rides like a colorful carousel and a locomotive train, what makes the park spectacular are the free-play areas for children with and without disabilities. The Butterfly Playground and Pirate Island Playground are surprisingly modern, safe and fun. They beat the pants off any playground in the city and broad canopies shade them, making for an outdoor experience that’s actually tolerable come summer vacation. There are seesaws, rolling-pipe slides and swings galore. Plus, everything is wheelchair-accessible, which means a soft, rubber surface and a lot of space. The Music Garden, water play area and Sensory Village feature playscapes with activities that rival the best children’s museums in Texas. Their take on the ever-popular pretend grocery store includes a bubbling toy lobster aquarium. There is a small lake with a fishing wharf, and the pièce de résistance: an enormous sand circle with mini-industrial diggers, buckets and toys. (A word to the wise: let the kids play in the sand first, so they can shake it out at the park and not in the car.) There is a concession stand with plenty of picnic areas and you can bring your own food. Admission is free for children with special needs and children under two years old. Otherwise, admission for children ages three to 10 years is $10; general admission is $15. All proceeds support the park and its programs for special needs children.
RUNNER-UP: Splashtown San Antonio
3600 N I-35, (210) 227-1400, splashtownsa.com