Should the National Parks Be Marketed Like Disneyworld?

Editor's note: The National Park Service is prohibited from advertising the 392 units of the National Park System, which might be both a good and a bad restriction. Guest writer Danny Bernstein imagines in the following column what things might be like if the Park Service could advertise the parks in a fashion similar to theme parks.

This past holiday season, my family went to DisneyWorld.

Our son hasn't been to DisneyWorld since he was in grade school, and now he's a father of two. I made reservations to stay at the resort, got tickets for the various theme parks, and I thought my trip planning was finished. Instead, I got a steady stream of marketing e-mails, from the time I booked, almost daily through December.

Since I spend a lot of time in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I got to thinking: What if our national parks marketed themselves like DisneyWorld?

Two months before your visit, you'd get an e-mail:

“Are you getting ready for your visit to the Smokies? Planning to enjoy the climb up to Mount Sterling on Baxter Creek Trail? Sign up for your Smokies fitness classes now. Learn about a Great Smoky Mountains National Park vacation from a very special panel of advisers — everyday hikers and visitors who've been to the park often.”

A month before:

“Bernstein family, it's only a month until your exciting visit to Great Smoky Mountains National Park! By now you should have bought your hiking boots and pack. Break in your boots and get your gear together. No hills where you live? Climb several flights of stairs at your school or office to simulate climbing to Gregory Bald.”

Three weeks before, you open a message with a huge picture of Smokey Bear:

“Dear Bernsteins, I see you're coming with your adorable 6-year-old. She would love to have lunch with Smokey Bear. Sign up now for a delicious lunch of peanut butter and jelly on 100 percent whole wheat bread, an apple and our special trail mix (Trademarked). Bring a water bottle. Remember, reservations are limited.”

Ten days before your trip, the e-mail message arrives flagged as high priority:

“You've reserved two campsites at Smokemont Campground. We highly recommend that you check in online and avoid waiting in line. This will give you more time to spend exploring the park.”

So you check in online and you read the terms and conditions that apply to your stay in the Smokies. You find that you agree not to harass the wildlife, leave food out on your picnic table, or take your dog on backcountry trails. You've also agreed not to pull out plants, leave litter on the trail or roads and be very careful when you put out a campfire.

Three days and counting:

“Wow! Only a few more days to go until you're celebrating the magic of your Great Smoky Mountains National Park visit. Consider bringing back Trails of the Smokies, your guide to every trail in the park so you can plan your next Smokies vacations. Smokies stores are conveniently placed throughout the park.

“And by the way, plan to keep checking your e-mail throughout your stay for more tips.”

OK, so you can't get cellphone service in the Smokies, and certainly not Wi-Fi. And the national parks by law can't advertise. We don’t think that national parks should model themselves after amusement parks, but some well-placed ads touting the spectacular scenery, rich cultural and historical landscapes, and recreational and educational opportunities could bolster recognition of, support for, and enjoyment of the national parks. Maybe more visitors would then be prepared to get out of their cars and onto the trails.


I agree with your last paragraph. The national parks could use some advertising but with careful consideration of the content. The parks belong to everyone and I enjoy visiting the parks with people who respect the environment and wildlife. I don't want them overrun by people expecting a Disney type experience.

Although advertising for the National Parks could attract a lot of people who would have a debatable effect on the parks, with people expecting a Disney type experience, planning a trip would most likely be a lot easier. I think comparing the marketing to Disney is an exaggeration as this would be a turn off for most of the audience and the park service simply doesn't have the budget for that sort of effort.

Trying to plan backpacking trips this summer for Yosemite and Grand Teton has been a headache as lacks consistent planning tools from park to park and vague information at best. A good interactive ad agency would be able to build out some strong, consistent trip planning tools to give potential visitors the info they need for an enjoyable trip in the back or front country.

I think some of the same agencies that handle some of the outdoor brands could handle the responsibility in a tasteful and respectful manner for the parks and avoid a Disney feel.

People already treat the wildlife in the park like it's a petting zoo - getting too close for the perfect picture. If they market them like a theme park, people will treat it as such! They're National Treasures, not fantasy land.

The NPS uses media releases and media interviews like real pros. The Ken Burns series was about as good an ad for the NPS as possible given the restrictions.

However - if someone has a campground or lodging reservation, what's to keep the NRRS or the concessionaire from sending out email alerts in the fashion described? Perhaps it doesn't have to be filled with exclamation points, but simple information points wouldn't seem to be against NPS policy.

I believe that the National Parks are not designed to handle the tourist traffic that Disneyworld was "constructed" to handle. Don't get me wrong, I love visiting the Disney Parks and Resorts but they are, for the most part, man-made and can be maintained and repaired in ways that many National Parks cannot. In addition, my observation of many people is that most do not respect the places they are visiting. They litter and don't respect the places they are visiting. This would have a destructive effect on the National Parks. I have visited 5 National Parks over the past 3 years and feel that those of us who partake of the hiking and other outdoor activities in the Parks are more aware of the "footprint" left. As we say, "leave no trace".

I can't think that even with advertisement that any NPS setting is going to get the concentrated foot traffic of an amusement park.

Even in well known "zoos" like Yosemite or Yellowstone, it's possible to find places of solitude by taking fairly short foot trails. About the only place in a National Park that I've seen that comes close to approaching a Disney park is the crowds surrounding Old Faithful. Even that isn't too bad.

And for real irony, there is the new Walt Disney Family Museum on NPS property.

No. The National Parks are too majestic and dignified to be cheapened by advertising such as this. The money would be more well spent on the NPS budget of managing and preserving the Parks.

Fifteen years ago I proposed a marketing concept to senior management in a regional office and was met with the abrupt response, "Marketing! We don't need marketing, we've got more than enough visitors already." I would hope over the years, NPS management has both learned the definition of marketing and developed an understanding of how it could aid the Service in managing its visitors/guests. We could probably learn something from a recreation-based company that attracted over 67.6 million paid visits (2008) to its domestic properties. Fortunately, the Service has acknowledged Disney as a leading source in several areas of mutual concern, including people moving, exhibits, orientation and training and more. Sadly, "marketing" is still a dirty word for many Service employees and they retain a negative view of The Disney Company - makes a profit, destroys/pollutes the environment, promotes "fake" experiences. This clouds their ability to see the organization as a source of highly effective visitor/guest management strategies and tactics. That said, there's no reason why the vast array of park partners, especially organizations like the membership of the Association of Partners for Public Lands (APPL), could not take on the responsibility of "building" marketing as a means of enhancing both visitor experience and resource protection. Much of what they already do bears a marketing stamp. If Service leadership would show some interest in a long-term program, I'm sure APPL would respond.

Frankly, I think it would be wonderful to see NPS "advertising" of the quality shown in commercials for our armed services. The recent series released by the U. S. Marine Corps is especially attractive if not downright patriot-building. Between Harpers Ferry Center and their film contractors, I could see some dazzling spots for the agency, its mission, and even messages like "leave no trace." Both macro and micro-marketing could be such a powerful constituent builder for the national parks. Go for it.

Some of the commenters are missing a full understanding of the National Park System. Not all national parks are majestic scenic areas where you go for solitude. Most parks are historic sites and most are east of the Mississippi. Most are less than 10,000 acres. Most are near some sort of urban area or small town. Marketing many of these parks make sense because they contribute to the economy of the local area. If local governments and businesses value a park they will help preserve it. There is no question that the NPS should not allow business pressures and tourism demands to influence management decisions that affect park resources, but there is no reason why they should not work with local interests to secure the parks as important parts of their region's heritage, culture, and economy. You can bet the big majestic parks are part of their local economy! Small and under-visited parks can use more visitors. Not only can they absrob more visitors without negative impacts, but they can also use more visitors to appreciate the reason why these parks exist and help keep them "relevant" to the public.

That was funny, Danny. Great insight into how theme parks market their goods. You could probably do a follow-up column on how families would face another deluge of marketing messages from the moment they set foot in the park until the venue has extracted every last dime from Dad's pocket.

As humorous as your column was, it does point to a bigger issue impacting state and federal parkland. I live in Arizona, a state so broke it can't keep its highway rest areas open, and is planning to shut 21 of 30 state parks.

These public lands, which this site exceptionally promotes, are the best values in America today. But, people don't know about them and the areas remain "best kept secrets" simply because they get lost in a sea of marketing for manmade attractions.

I would like to see state and federal parks do a bit more creative marketing to drive more visitors which will not only increase revenue to the parks, but also develop a whole new generation of Americans who value and appreciate their public lands. As much as some environmentalists might like to keep state and federal parks a secret, the reality is that people who don't have a vested interest in preserving their parks, will most likely be willing to let them wither -- or close.

A little marketing would not only increase traffic, but serve as an insurance policy to ensure that state and federal parks and historic sites remain open and viable for years to come.

The "friends of" and "natural history" associations could advertise on the parks' behalf. I don't think the crown jewels really need advertising, but it would be helpful to connect the "national park" brand to other sites. Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, for example, would get more respect if people thought of it as a national park. It's well loved by its many visitors, and that love could transfer to support for the national park system as a whole.

Rangertoo makes an excellent point.

We should find ways to engergetically encourage visiting to and education about these lesser-known or visited parks that can sustain a lot more visitors, without permitting them to be commercialized or exploited. Good, thoughtful, progressive managers can do this. In addition to preservation, the reason they are national park units is there is something critically important about their Story that America needs to remember. And, foster.

Heritage areas are one great way to help such national parks, together with the special character of the region, by celebrating that distinctive character, and finding appropriate ways to generate the revenue and support needed.

Until the national park service is willing to aggressively go after the necessary funds to operate and study such parks, and until the Congress responds with full funding, it is impossible to keep such parks behind a red velvet rope and also expect them to be preserved as the Act of 1916 intended.

It may be hard, but it is possible for the skilled and thoughful manager to keep the preservation principle foremost, focus on the primary park story, and avoid exploitation.

That's why they call it "work."

It's certainly a funny read,but I'd rather not see it come true.

Many of our national parks can't handle any more visitation because of crowding and/or lack of services. Funding is so far behind for just maintaining the existing "developed areas" that provide services for the current number of visitors. Parking can be limited and many roads, and trails, are in disrepair. There's plenty to spend on besides advertising. The NPS websites do provide a lot of info for planning a visit. And then there's the partners and concessionaires who can advertise. Once people arrive in the park, with good planning, I'd really hate to see them bombarded with more advertising. Instead they can read the park's guide/newspaper, go to a visitor center, attend Ranger programs and get out of their cars and into the park where they can, hopefully, connect to these special places.

It's great to see such a conversation about this issue. While I recognize that some wild places have a limited capacity for crowds, I also know that it's through the personal experiences of those people that we find our park advocates. As populations leave rural areas for cities, our youth (and their parents) are further disconnected from the geography of our nation. Even if the children of 2010 can connect to parks online, the lack of experiences viewing the milky way, building a campfire, or watching a bear, is of great concern to me. Our (famous) parks may be already crowded, but not with the future leaders of our park service. More than half of the wilderness permits I've issued are for hikers over 50. More than half of the Junior Ranger badges I've awarded are for children from Europe. Will they lobby for our parks in 40 years? Ken Burns did tell an excellent story of our parks, but his story pretty much ended before I was even born. What will be the story of our parks in THIS century? In an age where Everything is marketed, from churches to pharmaceuticals, our parks must also step up and solidify some image of importance.

Ranger E, you raise some timely and valid points. No matter what the resolution on your computer, the images simply can't fully relate to what you see when you're in the parks.

You can't be overwhelmed by a canopy of stars overhead, whiff the smoke from a campfire, paddle across a lake, or hike over a mountain. You can't truly appreciate the battlefields of Gettysburg, Valley Forge, or Fredericksburg, or sit in the same pew that helped inspired Herman Melville to write Moby Dick.

Getting younger generations into the parks as repeat visitors is the challenge of today. From your vantage point, any suggestions on how we can move in that direction?

Many Parks do get advertised through State tourism or tour companies trying to attract visitors. The NPS gets it done that way for $0.

Dave Crowl:
Many Parks do get advertised through State tourism or tour companies trying to attract visitors. The NPS gets it done that way for $0.

California sort of does it that way through their series of travel ads, but it seems more generic with no place names mentioned. I've noted various redwoods and even Disneyland in those ads.

The biggest paid promotions for Yosemite actually come from the Mariposa County Tourism Bureau. It's also not surprising that their "where to stay" recommendations don't include include Oakhurst (in Madera County).

The flip side is the Yosemite Visitors Bureau in Oakhurst. It's also not surprising that their recommendations for where to stay/dine outside the park are in Madera County.

I was also looking at the Federal Land Recreation Enhancement Act text. It does authorize marketing of the interagency passes. I would think that careful ad placements on the Travel Channel might be effective. The federal agencies coordinating the new rules on identity documents for return from Canada/Mexico have been airing their ads on Travel Channel. The NPS has also been extremely cooperative with documentary makers who have made shows that are sometimes fully/partically full-color ads for NPS sites. I've noticed the cooperation of many NPS rangers in the filming of these travel documentaries.

Hmmmmm. Well, maybe. But only if any advertising stresses strongly a message of respect and responsibility toward our parks.