In one of my books, National Parks of the West for Dummies, I tossed in a short chapter that offers readers ten reasons why a national park visit is so much better than a theme park trek.
For starters, I point out that the admission to national parks, generally $20-$25 per carload, is an incredible bargain compared to the $35-$50 per person you'll pay to enter one of the big-name theme parks.
Then, too, I note that "unlike theme parks, national parks can enlighten you about the world." By noticing your surroundings you're likely to learn a bit about conservation, environmentalism and zoology. Of course, visit Grand Canyon National Park and you'll get a great primer on geology.
The other benefits, I point out, range from viewing animals in their national habitats, not a zoo; no closing hour; no lines like those you'll encounter in a theme park; no hawkers trying to push cotton candy or stuffed animals on you; enjoying the landscape at your pace, as opposed to the speeds of roller coasters and other gravity-defying rides, and; the benefit of getting some exercise.
The point of this post is not to advertise my book. Rather, this intro leads you into a thoughtful op-ed piece a retiring National Park Service employee wrote comparing amusement parks and national parks.
Bill Tweed, chief naturalist at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, wrote this thought-provoking article for his local newspaper. It's an article that more than a few folks would benefit from.
"A few weeks ago my wife took me to Disneyland. She worked there several decades ago when she was first out of high school and wanted to see how the park had evolved in recent years. I tagged along to keep her company and see what I could learn.
As I wandered about, however, it was hard not to think like a park ranger. Comparing amusement parks and national parks is a tricky business. We tend to think of both as "parks," and both offer public destinations for family entertainment. But from that point, however, the two traditions diverge in interesting ways.
Amusement parks are much more expensive to visit than national parks. A seven-day family pass (one vehicle) to our local national parks costs $20, while a one-day visit to Disneyland costs a family of four about $200. If your family also visits the adjoining California Adventure park area, the daily cost rises to almost $300.
Yet, big amusement parks are also far more popular than national parks. Disneyland saw over 14 million visitors last year, while Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks attracted barely 10% of that total. Disneyland saw its visitation rise last year by over 8%, while national park visitation has changed little in recent years.
So why is it that the much more expensive attraction is so much more popular? What is it about amusement parks like Disneyland that make them such magnets for people looking for good times?
Wandering about Disneyland with my wife, several key differences between the two types of parks jumped out at me. One of the most fundamental, I suspect, is that Disneyland provides nearly instant gratification. You don't need to know much before you arrive, and there are lots of easy choices once you're there.
Structured entertainment surrounds you literally at every bend as you wander the wide pedestrian pathways. Many of the adventures offered are capable of generating lots of adrenalin. You can be as scared or exhilarated as you desire, as long as you're willing to wait in line. The results are guaranteed. And there's lots of good shopping.
The national park situation is more challenging. National park visitors often have to make their own entertainments, and those entertainments usually require personal investment and interest. Those who drift through parks seeking passive entertainment may get little more than pretty roadside scenery even though much more is available.
In a society where entertainment is a huge national industry, and where most citizens expect to be entertained most of the time, one has to ponder the role of national parks. Why do we need to protect and sustain places that are difficult or sometimes demanding to visit? The answer, for millions, is that national parks offer something that is truly missing from the entertainment world.
Unlike amusement parks (and TV for that matter), national parks offer experiences based on genuine, unpredictable reality. In national parks we explore and experience a world beyond our immediately control. We seek animals, and we may or may not find them. We hike the trails, and the weather simply is what it is; no guarantees.
Sometimes our efforts are rewarded and sometimes our patience is tried. When things come together, the results can change our lives. Nothing compares to the first time you see a bear in the wild.
It is significant, I think, that America invented both national parks and amusement parks. Around the world today both types of parks take their inspiration from the United States. Perhaps these two visions reflect the opposing poles of the American mind.
We seek adventure both in the human realm of designed entertainment and in the unpredictable world of nature. The choice falls to each of us to find our own balance between these extremes. For some of us, however, unmanaged, wild reality remains the ultimate "entertainment" and far more compelling than anything the human mind can invent."