More U.S. Parks and Attractions Are Offering Online Reservations
Some national parks may require reservations and permits for certain activities, but they do not currently 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 record-setting 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 travelers 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-the-moment choices. During Labor Day weekend I was in Utah and wanted to visit Arches National Park. Newspapers and social media, even the park itself, warned that the lines would be outrageous. And so imagine my utter delight as we rolled into Arches, not a line in sight, right up to the ticket window where a woman said the park was unusually empty. A big part of the memory of that trip was wondering if we would get in — and then driving along the empty road farther and farther, straight into the park, marveling at the red rock and our good luck.
Yet parks are not the only places making reservations more prevalent. Places like movie theaters and theme parks that already offer reservations for entry are getting more granular.
Last year, AMC Theatres announced that Manhattan would be the first major market where all of its theaters would have reserved seating. More than a decade ago, when the Ziegfeld Theater and Chelsea West were the first theaters in the nation to require reserved seating (you booked at the box office or by phone), New Yorkers were outraged. “It ruins the spontaneity and the pure adrenaline rush you get when you run down the aisle, seats open and ripe for the taking,” one moviegoer told The New York Times.
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 ahead of 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 post-FastPass+ 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.
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