Hitching Up To A Good Idea

An effective parks and recreation agency is always looking for its next good idea. The Fairfax County Park Authority in Virginia already had its next good idea--the staff members just had to remember it.

The agency took one of its most popular attractions at one of its most popular parks and spread the fun across the county.

Wagon rides through fields and woods were once a specialty of Frying Pan Farm Park. They fit with the atmosphere of a 1930s-era farm that the site models. However, the rides became so popular that the park authority thought similar treks might find patrons at other sites.

This past summer, the wagons rolled out in four other parks, all of them rich in natural and cultural resources.

“It has become a new way to experience the stories and beauties of the parks for families,” says Education and Outreach Manager Tammy Schwab.

“You can see large parts of the parks without having to walk the long distances. It has also allowed access to newer parks like Laurel Hill earlier than would be normal because guided wagon rides can happen now and not have to wait for the construction of trails or buildings.”

A Backstage Pass

“You’ll get to see parts of the park that most others don’t,” adds Huntley Meadows Park Manager Kevin Munroe. The rides are a “great way to use parts of the park and equipment that weren’t being used for programs.”

For many residents, the rides are a backstage pass to their favorite show, a behind-the-scenes tour of a favorite place. With a naturalist riding along as an interpretive guide, the 20- to 90-minute tours become a way for county residents to connect to their resources. Operation Branch Manager Todd Brown of the agency’s Resource Management Division initiated the expansion idea. He calls the wagon rides “a movable classroom.”

Fitting The Audience

Naturalists tailor their presentations to fit the audiences.

“First-timers learn about the park, and repeat visitors are presented with new facts and experiences. If it is a school group that needs SOL (Standards of Learning) requirements met, guides will cover those on the trip,” Brown says.

Interpreters work from talking points, but the best moments of the rides aren’t scripted. They happen naturally, like the swarm of migrating dragonflies and the osprey that Munroe observed on one of the rides.

On another excursion, riders were captivated by a frog convention on a blue tarp that was in place to control invasive plants.

“The rides give the audience an inexpensive way to do something different than the usual park visit,” Brown says. “They allow site staff to directly educate and entertain a lot of visitors.”

One staff member or volunteer can reach a group of 25 people on a single outing.

“This has the potential to be a gateway program for us,” Munroe adds.

His site was the first after Frying Pan to host the wagon tours, and he notes that many riders said it was the first program they had registered for at the park.

After the success of Huntley’s test rides, staff began organizing jaunts at Laurel Hill, an unstaffed park that’s rich in cultural and natural resources. Hidden Pond Manager Jim Pomeroy, one of the coordinators for the Laurel Hill expeditions, says, “The wagon rides are a great way to introduce people to our larger parks, including persons with disabilities, helping us serve a wide range of the population.”

The agency’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) Coordinator, Gary Logue, says ADA-accessibility is required, and the park authority has looked into ramp and platform systems to meet those standards.

Varying Themes

Themes vary so that rides differ from site to site.

Frying Pan’s guided trips are built around the park’s farm themes.

Riverbend Park is part of the Potomac River Gorge, and has historic ties to Native Americans. Its rides feature the history of the area’s people as well as flora and fauna in a unique combination because of the park’s location on a bend in the river downstream from the Appalachian Mountains.

Huntley Meadows showcases the largest non-tidal wetlands in Fairfax County and several large meadows managed with controlled burns. Huntley’s rides often focus on the importance of different habitats and management techniques, including fire.

Laurel Hill is built on land that was once a prison, and riders see buildings that still stand.

Sully Historic Site contains the home of Richard Bland Lee, Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress, so 18th-century life is central to the discussions on its wagon rides.

Holidays provide more opportunities for thematic rides. There are haunted hayrides at Halloween and Santa Claus appearances in December. Themes at individual parks change with the seasons as well.

Some rides wind through natural-resource areas that are not greatly disturbed, presenting a challenge in allowing riders to see and learn about remote sections of parks without damaging the resources. That also requires considering the time of day and seasons so that wildlife is not disturbed. The use of narrow trailers with small tractors allows passage on portions of pedestrian paths so that trails don’t always have to be widened.

Safety And Money Matters

The premier wagon ride concern is safety.

“Before we actually trained the drivers and interpreters, even before we purchased the wagons and tractors, we worked closely with our risk-management staff on all safety issues,” says Brown.

The work included research on equipment weight, and stopping and pulling capabilities. Those issues determined the number and weight of passengers for each course at the different parks. There are verbal safety instructions given before each ride so risks are minimized.

The rides also generate revenue. Patrons pay from $3 to $6, depending upon which site they visit. Before revenue, though, are expenses.

Brown says one overhead coast is staffing.

“We have used well-trained volunteers that have to follow the same training criteria as our staff. We use seasonal, part-time staff that is less expensive. We are using experienced staff to train others.”

Staff members are sometimes moved from one park to another to avoid hiring separate employees.

Transporting equipment to an unstaffed site--such as Laurel Hill--is another expense. Instead of using the agency’s mobile maintenance crew to haul a wagon and tractor to the site, the agency purchased a small trailer in which a small tractor fits.

Brown says, “When the staff member reaches the site, he unloads the tractor and uses straw bales as the seats on the trailer. This takes the operations from several people down to as little as one person.”

Keep ‘Em Coming

The agency wants visitors to try all the rides, so promotion is done through a single flyer that mentions the host sites.

In her education and outreach position, Schwab is a strong supporter of the new rides.

“The program reaches a lot of people, generates revenue, and interprets the mission,” she says.

“It causes little impact on park resources, and even helps educate visitors on the need to protect our resources. It allows the park to continue to develop new programs and to re-energize existing ones. It is a movable program, and people love action. It gives visitors a reason to extend their stay at our park and to come again.”

David Ochs is the Stewardship Communications Manager for the Resource Management Division of the Fairfax County Park Authority. He can be reached via e-mail at David.Ochs@fairfaxcounty.gov.