Special Report

Disney’s Last Frontier

Frontierland moves to Yellowstone -- but it will cost you.

By 5.6.05

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Greetings from Wyoming: A truly magnificent place of vast silvery sagebrush plains drained by rowdy rivers issuing from majestic purple mountains, and where the deer and the antelope play. Not to mention Mickey Mouse.

The Walt Disney Company recently announced that it will start -- on a trial basis -- six Disney package tours to Yellowstone National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and the Jackson Hole region this summer. The mega-corporation's 2005 "Quest for the West" is part of its "Adventures by Disney" vacation concept that caters to families who may already be familiar with their theme-inspired Caribbean cruises. Thus Disney enters the so far small and locally driven Western eco-tourism market.

"Quest for the West" will offer approximately 30 people per bus tour a weeklong dose of wildlife watching, hiking, horse trail-riding, and river rafting. At day's-end, West Questers will enjoy first class hotel accommodations and meals at classy frontier pit stops such as the Old Faithful Inn and the Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel. All this for a mere $5,600 to $7,800 for a family of four.

"Costumed characters" would only be seen "in a very controlled setting," Lisa Haines, a vice-president in Disney's Parks and Resorts division, told USA Today. Though Ms. Haines is vague about those "controlled settings." Will Mickey and Goofy and the kids be mugging for Mom and Dad's digital camera with Old Faithful spouting off in the background? How about in front of a herd of grazing but very puzzled bison in Hayden Valley or Gardner's Hole?

I've been reading a lot of local commentary to the effect that Yellowstone -- the nation's first national park -- is a somehow sacrosanct place that should be spared crass commercialization, not that the U.S. Park Service hasn't been violating that ideal for a century. In reality, "the Park" is a wreck of old forest fire burns (from the big fire year of 1988), and chronically potholed and crumbling highways thanks to severe winters and heavy summer traffic that require constant road construction projects (there are three scheduled for this summer, one of those just outside the Park) that spawn large traffic jams. Did I mention occasional sewage spills? The public outdoor toilets at Old Faithful have been known to discharge excess effluent into the nearby Firehole River on busy summer weekends.

The problems noted above go back decades, and are endemic in every national park in America, from Yosemite in California to Acadia in Maine. For all the Green Left's hysterical criticism of the Bush Administration concerning these environmental dilemmas, the truth is that the Clinton Administration did almost nothing to remedy them, despite enjoying huge surpluses in the late '90s. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt's (part of whose purview was the national parks) priorities at the time consisted mostly of flying around the West and closing up large chunks of the public domain to the "extractive industries," cynically using the 1906 Antiquities Act to establish new National Monuments, thus pleasing enviros, and putting other people out of work. Meanwhile, the plumbing at Old Faithful was backing up and tourists were getting their teeth rattled driving over potholes as deep as the Grand Canyon. So why would Disney want to run tours there? Or do they even know about these things?

This wouldn't be anything as pleasant as a cruise ship where the kids frolic with Mickey and Goofy on deck while Mom and Dad lounge by the pool. Yellowstone averages roughly three million visitors per summer (about 30,000 per day, especially in July and August). Along with the road projects, the "bear jams" (this term applies to other wildlife such as bison and elk) cause lines of vehicles to clog the roads as tourists stop to photograph wildlife. In short, a summer day in Yellowstone can offer joys and wonders similar to a day spent navigating the Los Angeles freeway system, though the views are nicer. This is the reason most Cody locals (me included) visit the Park during the "shoulder seasons" of May-June and September-October. Add to this mid-summer torrential afternoon thunderstorms that wash out roads and bridges, and -- especially in August and September -- eye-stinging, landscape-blurring smoke courtesy of nearby regional forest fires, fires that sometimes close entrance roads into the Park.

The previously noted Green Left commentary is off the mark. If Yellowstone is indeed a "cathedral of wilderness" (one of the trite phrases I came across), then why is a summertime visit a sometimes unpleasant experience? The Greenies want to keep Mickey Mouse out of the cathedral, of course, but the real question is why Disney would want to pursue this public relations disaster-in-the-making in this the 50th year of the founding of Walt Disney's iconic American theme park.

Oh well, Disney is America, and America is Disney. So I guess they're coming.

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About the Author

Bill Croke, formerly of Cody, Wyoming, is a writer in Salmon, Idaho.