US parks providing online reservations
DOES a vacation really feel like a vacation when every little thing is scheduled? Perhaps not, but with more attractions offering reservations, chances are you’ll have to do a little more planning.
Certainly, there are upsides to reservations. They slash wait times, allowing travellers to see and do more. They curb disappointment; there’s no driving for an hour only to find out that you can’t get in. They can also be essential tools in helping preserve fragile environments. Zion National Park in Utah, for instance, is considering adopting an online reservation system amid record crowds that are wearing down trails and campgrounds faster than the park can afford to repair them.
At the same time, there are trade-offs. For instance, spontaneity and serendipity, a large part of what makes travel surprising and rewarding, tend to get short shrift. And as getting reservations for attractions becomes more competitive, travellers may soon no longer be able to choose whether to book in advance or play things by ear. Increasingly, if you don’t make a reservation, you won’t be able to find a decent seat at a movie theatre, camp at a popular national park, see the blockbuster exhibition, or ride the latest roller coaster. Additionally, reservations are typically made online, which can put those without easy access to the internet at a disadvantage.
Some of the biggest changes are happening at national parks in response to soaring attendance.
The California State Parks system recently rolled out an upgraded campsite and lodging reservation system called ReserveCalifornia that aims to deliver a digital experience similar to booking a hotel room or airline tickets.
The system also allows users to see detailed campsite maps. You can book up to six months to the day in advance of the arrival date. For example, if you made a reservation on September 2, you could have an arrival date of March 2, 2018. (Reservations at campsites in other parts of the United States can be made at sites such as ReserveAmerica and Recreation.gov.)
Some national parks may require reservations and permits for certain activities, but they do not require reservations for entry. Zion National Park in Utah may become the first park to do so.
The park is considering adopting an online reservation system, among other options, after record crowds last year: more than 4.3 million people, up from 3.6 million in 2015. Jeff Bradybaugh, Zion’s superintendent, said in a newsletter this summer that visitation there “is skyrocketing at a rate exceeding even recent recordsetting years”.
The increase in visitors has led to significant crowding and traffic congestion. Park shuttles with seats for 68 riders are often packed with about 100 people. And the number of emergency incidents rangers must respond to has increased exponentially. Requiring reservations would be one way to manage the crowds, helping preserve the park and providing a better experience for visitors. A different proposal would require reservations for certain parts of the park such as heavily used trails. Or things could be kept as they are. A decision is expected in 2018.
Being able to browse and book certain experiences has plenty of benefits, especially for travellers who take only one big vacation a year and want to make sure they can camp or hike where they want to. Still think of, say, a road trip, where so much of the enjoyment comes from spur-of-themoment choices.
At theme parks, there are reservations for practically every experience inside the gates: rides, shows, parades, restaurants, meet and greets. Walt Disney World’s FastPass+ feature, for example, allows visitors to reserve an arrival window for certain attractions as early as 30 days before you get there, or up to 60 days before check-in if you’re staying at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel. So there you are, deciding whether you want to simulate the G-forces of a spacecraft launch or meet Mickey Mouse – not to mention what you want to eat in between – possibly months before your trip.
Thinking about a vacation before time has been shown to boost happiness, so Disney-goers with the time and patience to create matching itineraries for the entire family may be in luck. But in the park, all those reservations (which you can skip if you’re willing to spend much of your day in standby lines) can detract from, well, the fun. Those of us who for years visited pre-FastPass+ remember getting up at the crack of dawn and the thrill of being among the first to board a barge on Pirates of the Caribbean. All you needed was will and a little luck. In postFastPass+ Magic Kingdom, after the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train roller coaster opened, I felt anxious. My family always had somewhere to be at an appointed hour. I nudged us along, frequently checking my watch. If I want to do that, I may as well just go to work.
Waiting can be good for you. I learned patience on those lines. I experienced the joy of anticipation. I gained an appreciation for the old-fashioned art of street entertainment, which Disney’s cast members excelled at, while waiting.
Reservations are easy and, these days, expected. But long live the lessons learned by waiting; by not knowing. There is a difference between knowing there’s a possibility of seeing a princess, and knowing she’s waiting for you on the other side of a door. One way offers warm assurance. The other is a roll of the die. There’s the chance of disappointment, but also: the chance to find out that, sometimes, when we don’t get what we want, we get something better.
Tourists ride through Yosemite National Park in California, on August 27, 2013. Advance planning may be in order if you want to camp at a popular national park or ride the latest roller coaster.