Tuesday, April 20, 2010

PR Campaign Key to Morgan’s Wonderland Opening Success

Earlier this month, the long-awaited grand opening ceremony for Morgan’s Wonderland was carried live on Ustream It was the capstone of a year-long awareness campaign for the nations’ first theme park designed with accessibility and special needs in mind.

The park is the brainchild of San Antonio philanthropist and former builder Gordon Hartman and named for his special needs daughter Morgan. The park is a non-profit operation, so a large opening campaign so typical to theme parks was not an option, according to Bob McCullough, APR, Communications Director for Morgan’s Wonderland.

“One of the biggest challenges is communicating exactly what it is. It’s a theme park, but it’s not a theme park in certain respects,” says McCullough. “We don’t have tickets, we have reservations. There are no coupons, no promotions. Instead, because many families dealing with special needs are faced with economic challenges, we offer free admission to special-needs guests and $5 admission to those who come with them. Therefore, you have to approach things a lot differently.”

Approaching things differently was the hallmark of the park’s pre-opening campaign too. According to McCullough, the team at the Gordon Hartman Family foundation embraced social media very early, integrating a Facebook and Twitter presence with the park’s Web site. Reaching out to local social media groups like the Social Media Club of San Antonio and BMPR (Business, Media and Public Relations) was part of that plan.

Traditional media relations were important, too, says McCullough. First and foremost, educating and informing the local media was a key part of the plan. The park’s soft opening on March 3 featured great local coverage. “Then we started getting calls from Alaska and New York and everywhere in between because and the local stations kindly shared their stories with the networks” says McCullough. “We also received a tremendous boost March 8 when ‘ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer’ aired a lengthy feature story.”

In the month after the soft opening of Morgan’s Wonderland, San Antonio’s ABC affiliate KSAT TV aired a 30-minute special on the park, which led to additional coverage by “Good Morning America” two days before the grand opening. The San Antonio Express-News produced a special insert about the park that was distributed April 4.

The grand opening on Saturday, April 10, featured former San Antonio Spur David Robinson and actress Eva Longoria Parker among the celebrities. McCullough estimates that more than 10,000 attended the opening. “Even though people had to wait a little to get in the park, there were millions of smiles. It was a great evening and the weather cooperated, too. Everything went beyond our expectations.”

But the public relations campaign is not yet over. McCullough is a veteran of the theme park business. While Public Relations Director at SeaWorld San Antonio, he and his team earned a Silver Anvil for the Grand Opening Campaign for that parks’ opening activities in 1988. So he knows the exciting challenges of telling the bigger story of Morgan’s Wonderland over the coming months.

“There are lots of different story angles,” says McCullough. “This is a special-needs story, a tourism story, a high-tech story, an architecture story, a design story. It lends itself to so many different story angles.”

As well, the $32.5 million dollar park is still in the process of raising funds to pay for the build-out. McCullough will also be involved in familiarization tours with community groups to spur them on to help contribute to the capital and operating costs.
Since grand opening, the park has received media inquiries from around the U.S. and overseas.

“This has been a truly heartwarming project,” says McCullough. “We’ll keep trying to spread the word and hope we will be discovered by Oprah and many others regionally, nationally and internationally.” In the meantime, the park has been discovered by families across the USA who have been waiting for a place like Morgan’s Wonderland.

Photo of the Hartman family at the opening of Morgan's Wonderland. Courtesy r.c. french photography, copyright 2010, All rights reserved.

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