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Odds and Ends From Visitor Surveys at National Parks: You'd Be Surprised At Some of the Answers


Park staff, please don't let the roll run out! Photo courtesy of Friends of the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore.

Pay attention, national park managers and staff. If there's nothing else you do well, be sure to keep the restrooms clean and stocked.

That little nugget of advice -- which park staffers are probably well aware of -- was gleaned from a review of some recent demographic surveys conducted for the National Park Service by the Park Studies Unit at the University of Idaho.

For instance, restrooms apparently see more traffic than the trails in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, or perhaps they're just more memorable. Strange, but true, according to the visitor survey taken in early October 2008. Of the 781 questionnaires returned (of 1,143 handed out), 90 percent of the respondents indicated that the "most used visitor services/facilities were the restrooms."

The gorgeous hiking trails? They merited mention by just 64 percent of the respondents. A similar survey taken a few months earlier, from June 22-28, 2008, boosted the restroom crowd to 92 percent of respondents, and the trail crowd, too, to 66 percent. Cause and effect, perhaps?

Some other minutiae from a random bunch of surveys:

* Between May 25, 2009, and June 17, 2009, every single visitor who filled out a survey (254 of 340 were handed in) at Homestead National Monument was a U.S. citizen. Ninety-seven percent of those visitors were Caucasian.

* While 81 percent of the visitor groups who toured Homestead during that time period visited the monument's bookstore, just 14 percent "were able to find the sales items in which they were interested."

* From June 15-23, 2009, of the 249 surveys turned in, 97 percent of the visitors to Minuteman Missile National Historic Site in South Dakota were from the United States and ... 98 percent reported that English was "the most commonly used language for communication..."!

* South Dakotans seem to care little about Minuteman Missile NHS, as only 3 percent of the visitors surveyed during that period were from South Dakota.

* At Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, only park brochures/maps (83 percent) trumped restrooms (82 percent) when survey takers were asked to name the visitor services and facilities most commonly used.

* Plan ahead for parking if you're going to the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park unit in Seattle. According to 220 surveys completed July 5-11, 2009, 12 percent of those folks had parking problems. Once inside, though, things got better. "The service receiving the highest importance rating was restrooms (85 percent)," the study points out. "The services receiving the highest quality rating were restrooms (96 percent) and assistance from park staff (96 percent)."

* Surveys taken February 26-March 3, 2008, and April 29-May 5, 2008, showed that 98 percent of the visitors to Everglades National Park were Caucasian.

* Do smarter park visitors visit Great Smoky Mountains National Park in summer rather than fall? Of the 748 parties who responded to a visitor survey in the park June 22-28, 2008, 28 percent had a bachelor's degree and 22 percent had a graduate degree. That fall, of the 781 who filled out a survey between Oct. 5-11, 28 percent reported they had attended some college, and 25 percent had a high school diploma or GED.

* The average length of a visit to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in early August 2009 was 2.8 days. For comparison's sake, the average length of a visit to Everglades National Park between February 26-March 3, 2008, was 1.2 days.

* Between August 2-8, 2009, just 19 percent of the 854 visitors who filled out a survey in Acadia National Park said they attended a ranger-led program.

* At Bryce Canyon National Park during the time period of July 26-August 1, 2009, 84 percent of the 626 survey respondents stated that the facility they used most was .... the restroom! Parking areas stood second, cited by 74 percent of the respondents

* The average length of stay at James A. Garfield National Historic Site was ... 1.9 hours. Perhaps, in light of that short stay, the restrooms weren't that important, as the top two services and facilities most commonly used by the 241 groups that took surveys were the visitor center (93 percent) and the visitor center exhibits (89 percent).

* Restrooms were mentioned by 81 percent of the visitors to Acadia when they were asked to name the most commonly used facilities.

* Pennsylvania must be rough to handle in winter, as the Keystone State finished second only to Florida in terms of visitors to Everglades National Park with 7 percent of the 370 respondents vs. 32 percent between February 26-March 3, 2008.

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If you really want to experience the best restrooms in the NPS, bar none, head to the Rob Hill campsite at San Francisco's Presidio in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Made possible by the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund (founders of The Gap retail outlets), the campsite is used for the "Camping at the Presidio" program that targets city kids.

The restrooms there are not only clean and bright, but are also very stylish with a modern design and feature the Dyson airblade jet hand dryers. I've stayed at four star hotels that don't have bathrooms as nice.

As long as I can remember, one of the principle tenets of interpretive training has been that you have to satisfy people's basic needs before they will be truly receptive to discovering the values in a park. I've often seen Maslow's hierarchy of needs used as a training device to help interpreters think about approaches to their craft. So I don't think it's sad that people will remember a dirty restroom before a good ranger talk, it is to be expected. If someone has been on the road for several hours before arriving at your park, their first need will be to use the bathroom. Good customer service in this country starts with clean bathrooms.

It ain't glamorous, but the bathrooms are a universal experience and need. Most people have to drive quite a ways to get to their parks. What is the FIRST thing, before the burro rides or the exhibits or the buffalo? "Wait for me, Madge - I gotta hit the can". And no one expects a liveried manservant passing out linen towels in a park but the opposite experience - a third world squat over a hole, or a smell-o-rama, or suchlike, can definitely leave a regrettable memory.

I really think people have to get over whatever false squeamishness they may have just acknowledging the realities of this. It is an ordinary part of life in parks or not. It doesn't take that much to make it a clean and ordinary experience at the parks, and let people save their memory space in the brain for the truly memorable wonders that abound in our parks.

During the 1960's, posting information about the evening programs and guided day-walks near or inside park "comfort stations" was common practice. We'd frequently rove the campgrounds in the hour or so before the evening programs to inform campers about the upcoming events.

Today, most such announcements are made via VC bulletin boards and in the pages of the park newspaper distributed at entrance stations and the VC.

By the way, the "idea" of a park newspaper to inform visitors of interpretative activities through a park newspaper was spawned in Yosemite National Park during the early 1970's.

Maybe parks could start posting info about the interp programs in the restooms.

That's a really good point Edward. I also think of buildings when I hear "facilities." With that thought process, when I'm in a park I certainlly use the bathrooms more than anything. I go into the VC only once, get my stamp, purchase some items, and look at all the displays befor hitting the trails. But you better believe that I'm going to be hitting every restroom I can find!

Perhaps teh problem with the surveys is that they do not consider that the trails are facilities. Whe I think of facilities I think of buildings and perhaps parking lots first. I appreciate the trails and talks, but they do not fit immediately into the category of facilities.

D-2, you are correct. For well traveled tourists, the image of a country is highly influenced by the cleanliness of its public restrooms, more so than anything else. That having been said, I can only remember park restrooms, especially those in or near park visitor centers, being of very high quality. I can't say the same for some concessioner facilities, however, or those operated by whoever runs the private campground near Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly.

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