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.

Wagon tours offer a new perspective on parks.

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.”

Riders get a close look at parts of parks they might not otherwise see.

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.

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