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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.


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

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.

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

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?

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.

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.

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."

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.

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