The True Magic of Traveling

Think back to a favorite vacation. Where did you stay? It may have been a hotel, or an Airbnb, or at someone’s house. Maybe in a tent or a camper. Now let me ask you this: What were the colors of the walls where you stayed? What color was the carpet?

What do you mean you don’t remember? I thought we were talking about your favorite vacation?

Now how about this: Who were you with? What about that vacation stands out in your mind?

I bet you had no trouble with those questions. I also bet the answer to that last question involved a unique experience, possibly some unique place, likely involving other people who were important to you.

I remember a family trip during which my dad would covertly tell the wait staff at every restaurant we went to that it was my mom’s birthday (it wasn’t). The ensuing celebration came complete with horns and sirens and singing staff. And probably a free dessert or two. Now, 20-plus years later, I couldn’t name the restaurants, but I sure remember the experience.

That’s the thing about travel. There’s the destination, then there’s the experience. And while the destination is often the draw, it’s the experience that lasts in memory. I try to keep this in mind as I oversee the development and management of the county park system.

Think again about your own vacation or travel memories. How many of them are actually centered on the specific place you stayed, and how many of them are of experiences that took place simply as a result of going somewhere novel or special?

In terms of destination development, there’s a balancing act between building the attraction and providing the experience to accompany it. The park, or some particular feature thereof, is usually the draw. And those costs are rather easy to quantify. Buildings roads, infrastructure, and facilities all have a measurable cost. But the experience a park or destination provides is something else entirely. The “feel” or “vibe” of a place is hard to describe. How do you create a certain “atmosphere” or “attractiveness” of a place? Such metrics are hard to identify, let alone figure out how to budget for.

Disney is the master of this. If you’ve ever gone to any sort of Disney theme park, you know that the entire focus is on the experience. Yes, they invest massive sums of money in the actual built environment – the buildings and places and rides that you see. But their true focus is on the experience that they are providing – the people and characters you see and how they interact with visitors, the clean, welcoming “feel” of every aspect of the park. In other words, the “magic” that is uniquely Disney.

The investment Disney makes in staff training, the standard of cleanliness and maintenance they uphold, down to the materials and colors they use on structures, is all by design. There’s an entire infrastructure to transport things in and out of the park so that the internal operations of running such a giant operation are completely out of sight. Seeing delivery vehicles and garbage trucks would detract from the magic, so they’re consciously hidden away. This investment into curating that unique magical experience is why Disney parks are some of the most visited places on earth.

As I think about the future of our county parks, I try to harness my inner Walt Disney and consider the experience our parks provide. In fact, we’re right in the middle of writing a new master plan for Big Hollow Park and much of what will go into that plan is focused on the experience visitors have there. Sure, we have to create the facilities and the attractions that will draw people there in the first place such as campgrounds and cabins and trails and fishing spots. But how then do we expand on those activities to create an overall experience that will inspire families to want to come back for repeat visits? How do we create an experience that will get kids to beg their parents to take them out to the park for the weekend? How do we create an experience that will inspire people to put down their electronic devices and spend a few more hours enjoying the outdoors?

Those questions are hard to answer. But they have to be asked. Because when it comes to vacationing, whether that be a weeklong trip across country or simply a weekend trip up the road to a nearby county park, the destination is only a small part of the memories that are sure to be made. It’s the experiences we have – and the people we share them with – that really stick in our minds.

And you can’t just buy that sort of magic.