Hitching Up To A Good Idea

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.

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