The Disneyland Price Comparison for Park Fees

By now if you've been following the pricing game played by the National Park Service, you will have heard the comparison made to Disneyland multiple times. I referred to one such comparison made by the NPS in yesterday's article. As you may know, this comparison has been going on for years. I've been told by Scott Silver that the earliest comparisons go as far back as 1985. Here are a few more, from years past:

1996, The Thoreau Institute : "A visit to Disneyland costs roughly the same or more [as a family visit to the movies, or kids playing video games]. Numbers like these make most of the [Forest Service fees] appear low."

2000, Rep. Regula : "The fees are minuscule compared to what people will pay to go to a movie or to go to Disneyland."

2004, PERC : "If entrance fees were raised to $20 per person per visit (not $20 per car for a week) ... they would still represent a small portion of the total expenditure for a typical family trip. By comparison, twenty dollars per person is less than half the price of a single day's visit to Disneyland."

To be clear, I don't have a problem with Disneyland. I'm not trying to vilify ol' Walt. Disney has created an amazing amusement park, and as such, it has it's place in the fabric of American life. I've been there more than a few times, and enjoyed myself each time. But it must be understood that I go to National Parks for reasons that are completely different than the reasons I would go to Disneyland. And so, comparing the cost of the two as justification for higher park entrance fees is more than unfortunate. It would be like comparing the cost of park entrance fees to something like the cost of automobile tires; you could say there is a relationship between the two - I need tires to drive through a park - but the comparison in cost would be silly and makes as much sense as the comparison with Disneyland admission.

"But wait," you might say, "wouldn't you recreate in Disneyland, just as you'd recreate in a park like Yosemite? The comparison would then be fair, wouldn't it?" Sure, recreation is part of the National Park experience, but when you've got a system as diverse as the 390 park units of the NPS, recreation plays only a small role. Would you consider driving to Disneyland for a picnic? To make a connection with history? To study forest succession? To gaze into the Milky Way? To reflect on war, as you might at the Vietnam Memorial? To find room to think?

There may be a thousand reasons that people seek a national park experience. Of those reasons, one may be to enjoy a family vacation as one might also do at an amusement park like Disneyland. As the National Park Service builds this case for parity pricing of the recreation experience, they shut out every other legitimate reason you might use your public lands.

There are more problems with the Disneyland or movie ticket price comparison. A huge issue is that our taxes don't subsidize the cost of movie tickets or entrance to amusement parks, as they do with the national parks. Disneyland sets its prices based on an economic theory that maximizes profit, our federal lands are not supposed to operate on those terms.

If the Park Service is looking to make a more accurate comparison for pricing, I suggest they consider using city, regional, or state parks in their statements. Like the national parks, local parks are sustained by taxes. Like the national parks, local parks may be used for picnics, outdoor education, as a place to think, and as place for escape. I've even seen local parks with hiking trails, campgrounds, and visitor centers, similar to those at the federal level. With so many similarities, why haven't we seen the price comparison made in the media? I'm sure you can guess my conclusion. It's because the $25 to enter the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Zion, Yosemite (proposed), Olympic (proposed), and others, would seem by cost comparison to local parks, unreasonable and absurd.
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Comments

I'm totally against park fees. Parks should be funded by the people for the people. They should not be compared with Disneyland or the price of a concert or local movie theater. Nevertheless, if it's become so essential to establish a public perception of value associated with a visit to a public park, why not start charging entrance fees for visiting the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Great Smoky Mountains. After all, with a visitation in the tens of millions, a fee of $20.00 per car might produce some serious revenue for the NPS. Or, is there an underlying reason why the enabling legislation for these popular eastern parks specifically mandated that fees not be charged?
At Disneyland they genuinely act like they want you to come and visit their property. I can tell you honestly that the reception that I have received from rangers at many of the above mentioned parks was less than warm and friendly. My many experiences with the Zion fee rangers, at their entrance gates, has been one of encountering mostly surly and stressed out government employees, who are long on finger wagging and short on courtesy. My visits to the Grand Canyon and Yosemite have been little different. I have always contented myself with the scenery and quiet of these places and had conditioned myself to not expect too much service or warmth from park employees, much less modern and up to date amenities. This was acceptable when the fees were in the $5 - $10 range, but at $25 a pop it is getting to be a bit aggravating.

It seems that the NPS has evolved increasingly into a "resource focused" land management agency that doesn't really care about its visitors in the same way that a Disney property or the neighborhood multiplex views the very same people coming through their gates. In the good old days I believe visitors were more important to the NPS than they are now. The declining numbers going to visit national park areas bear this out. The park service seems way more focused on combating "non-native" weed species and creating podcasts for "virtual tours" than taking the time to learn the rudiments of customer focused hospitality and value focused service towards their paying clients. Many rangers tell me it is more important to be "good stewards of the land".

With life time jobs that feature generous retirement pay & benefits the people managing the agency have little stake in the success or failure of efforts to improve visitor services. At Disney and the local multiplex, on the other hand, their entire well-being and survival depend on producing value for their customers. Without a steady flow of satisfaction from their clients and good word of mouth advertising they are doomed. In the NPS the bureaucrats retire fat and happy regardless of the outcome.

Visitation will continue to decline with this dysfuntional governmental business model. Just watch and see.
I have also had several bad experiences with the rare ranger in national parks, to the point of feeling that the gray and green are no longer doing their jobs. You hardly ever see a uniformed ranger in a park these days, and when you do, it might not be enjoyable. Why are they harrassing ordinary visitors doing nothing wrong? Are they so overtrained in law enforcement, that they look for evil doers in everyone? This is a problem in training and supervision. It does not have to be this way, just because specialists are now the norm instead of generalists.

I do not agree with the previous poster that resource-focused staff are to blame. Being friendly and helpful, as well as knowledgeable, are part of the job of anyone who is likely to be met by visitors in any situation. This includes resource managers, law enforcers, maintenance, etc.
I wholeheartedly agree with you that being friendly and helpful SHOULD be part of everyone's job but think that the new paradigm of resource-focused management puts visitors on the list of undesirable species invading these "pristine" preserves right along with tamarisk and Russian thistle. Living in a gateway community I get to interact with rangers and I must say that most don't have a very high regard for the human race in general. They seem to think that humanity is one of the biggest problems facing the planet and don't generally feel all that warm and fuzzy about sharing the wonders of nature with visitors but instead are there to "protect the resource" from "getting thrashed" by the scores of people descending upon their beloved parkland like greedy locusts.

The focus has definitely changed from what it was a generation ago. The public definitely feels it and has voted with their feet. The decline in visits will continue. I think that most front line rangers would tell you that is a GOOD thing. Remember not too long ago the NPS proclaimed that we were "loving the parks to death". Now they are fretting because the people have stopped coming. I think the agency thrives in a crisis mode and can't decide what it wants for sure besides higher entrance fees and increased regulations on visitors, both of which, by the way, continue to discourage people from making visits.

Regardless of what platitudes emanate from agency management the attitude on the ground is one of general hostility and suspicion towards the visiting public. It's certainly not a recipe for increasing visitation.
If park resources are not protected, parks will be like every place else and there will be no reason to visit them. Gateway communities might not like this either.
When people are treated courteously and without suspicion I believe this engenders a spirit of cooperation and support towards an organization's mission. I don't think the parks are actually being "protected" any more than they used to be. If they had become "degraded" by marauding overuse this would have manifest itself many years ago, but Yosemite, Zion, Bryce and Olympic all look and feel pretty much the same as they did 50 years ago. So I don't think this is an unwillingness on the visiting public's part, or gateway communities, to help protect the parks, but instead see a change in attitude being projected towards visitors that is making them feel unwelcome and unwanted in our national parks. The numbers just don't lie.
As a former ranger from Yosemite in the late 1970's to early 1980's, I can tell you that the overall focus of the NPS has changed. The concessionaire now seems to be in charge. A result of the 1997 flood casued the closure of both the River Campgrounds in the valley. The claim by the NPS was these campground where not natural and damaging to the river ecosystem. It would be too expensive to repair them. Just too much work for so little return. We were told that NEW campgrounds would be built with more room between sites, in a better area of the valley. This would help with the traffice problems, and concentration of people in the east valley. The so called 1980 Master Plan for Yosemite also called for this. Well, its been 27 years since that came out, and over 10 years from the flood. Still no new campgrounds. Another closing of one on the Tioga Road, Smokey Jack. The traffice problem is Yosemite Valley has been caused mostly by the poeple who say they are trying to fix it, yep, USNPS. In summer of 1976, I think, they closed off all the parking near the Store up to the Visitor Center. I think that this was over 300 car parking spaces. The area was in fact returned to a more natural state during my time there in 1981. They took a huge amount of parking spaces out, and wondered why people were driving around looking a spot.
My wife spent over 15 years living in the valley, went to the elementary school, and also high school in Mariposa. Their old house is still standing up on Lost Arrow drive with the interior ripped out. The park is very concerned about moving employee's out of the valley to El Portal. So, instead of walking to work, now they drive the El Portal 500 twice a day. Car pooling is very difficult due to different schedules and job resposnibilities. This housing are has been there since the 1920's. The current concessionaire wants to add over 200 motel rooms at the Lodge. NPS does not have a problem with this. Hotel rooms generate much more revenue than campgrounds. The $ 20 per vehicle is obsene. I pay a huge amount of federal taxes and some of that goes to support the NPS. Backcountry trail maintenance is non-excistant. They want to compare the charges of Yosemite and other parks to Disneyland, like has been said in this forum, I don't pay taxes for Disney. I do pay them for the USNPS. That's the biggest difference.