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Happiest Place on Earth Plays Host to Park Rangers : Government: Federal workers attend training workshop at Disney World. Tab could reach $250,000.

December 17, 1995|JOHN SOLOMON | ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON — They were deemed nonessential and sent packing during the November government shutdown. But once back to work, more than 200 federal park rangers departed for Disney World, at taxpayer expense, to train to be better tour guides. The rangers attended lectures on such topics as "The Power of Magic in Shaping History," had dinner at Sea World marine amusement park and took field trips to Disney's Magic Kingdom and Epcot Center.

The government's final bill for the workshop is likely to fall between $100,000 and $250,000.

"It's a recognized training function, and they take a lot back to the parks. And we don't view that as a boondoggle," National Park Service spokeswoman Elaine Sevy said. "It is a shame that it fell the week after the shutdown. But this was scheduled long before."

According to organizers, about 400 employees of the Park Service, Army Corps of Engineers, Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management attended the five-day National Assn. for Interpretation (NAI) workshop in Orlando, Fla. Nov. 26-30.

The Park Service, which faces large budget cuts, had the largest contingent, accounting for 351 of the 970 workshop participants, according to the NAI. The Park Service estimates 150 to 200 were paid by the government to attend, with an average cost of about $1,000 each.

The Army Corps said it sent 12 staffers at a cost of about $12,000 and the Forest Service said it sent 45 at a cost of $43,877. The Interior Department estimated another 50 staffers went from BLM and Fish and Wildlife.

The main classroom was the four-star Buena Vista Palace hotel just outside Disney World, where room rates normally run between $130 and $250 a night.

Participants, who got their rooms for $99 a night, were offered three days' worth of six to eight hours of seminars and lectures on such subjects as "Goofy (and Educational) Nature Songs" and "Interpreting Resources Along Scenic Byways and Corridors."

In between, there was a Sunday night picnic at Disney's River Country water park, a dinner reception at Sea World and an entire day for field excursions, which ranged from NASA's Kennedy Space Center to wildlife refuges.

The most popular, organizers say, were backstage tours of the Disney attractions, which drew about 150 of the participants.

NAI, the workshop's sponsor, is a nonprofit professional organization with 2,600 members from federal, state and local government and private industry. It is dedicated to training interpreters: tour guides, park rangers and nature center staff who explain the historical, natural and cultural attractions at tourist spots.

Executive Director Tim Merriman said the group has held annual workshops for years--usually in remote locations with natural resources. Next year, he said, it's back to Billings, Mont.

"This was a controversial meeting because most of our folks have never been to Disney. They tend to spend most of their time in remote parks," Merriman said.

While acknowledging the Disney and Sea World attractions were "a bonus," he insisted they were not the main draw because "this group of people are bird-watchers and outdoorsmen."

"When they go to training, they go to train. They are very serious about it," he said.

The Park Service, Forest Service and Army Corps also used the event for staff meetings and to hand out awards.

Glen Clark, a Park Service guide whose own expense account for the event ran just under $1,000, said many federal workers doubled or tripled up in hotel rooms because their daily government lodging allowance was $66. And dozens paid their own way or picked up some of their own expenses.

"There's only so much training money you could spend each year, and this is one of the things a lot of people picked simply because of the enrichment to their profession," he said.

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