Oconaluftee Visitor Center – Training Day 1

OVC - Lisa Free in Ownby Cabin

The seasonal rangers have arrived in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. They’re starting with a week of training, also open to volunteers. Most of the volunteers were leaders in the Elk Bugle Corps but there were also visitor center volunteers, like me.

I left Asheville before 7 A.M. to get to Sugarlands Visitor Center outside of Gatlinburg by 9 A.M..OVC - Foothills Parkway view I stopped just long enough to take an early morning picture on the Foothills Parkway.OVC - Cataract Falls

Here are some of the highlights of the day.

Customer Service

Mike Meldrum, a ranger at Cades Cove, talked about enhancing the visitor experience.

The visitor wants to know “What’s in it for me!” and that’s what we have to answer.

Visitor contact is highly personalized. An interpreter (ranger or volunteer) must be able to evaluate the visitor and use a “well-crafted response”, a visitor center approach. We need to:

1.  Provide quality customer service
2.  Exceed visitor expectation
3.  Pay attention to detail.

Like Disneyworld, we’re in the business of exceeding expectation. We heard several audio quotes from Michael Eisner, head of Disneyworld.  Meldrum loves Disneyworld and goes there yearly.

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for National Park Traveler on marketing the parks like Disneyworld and I got many heated responses but here Meldrum was applying Disney techniques to the park.

Also from Eisner, “you need to be committed and passionate. You’re like a Jehovah’s Witness with a day job.”


  • Make eye contact and smile
  • Greet and welcome every visitor
  • Seek out visitor “Can I help you?”
  • appropriate body language
  • Preserve the positive visitor experience
  • Thank each visitor for coming to the park.
  • No personal conversation with other park people when visitors are around. (I wish some of my Visitor Center coworkers would adhere to that, especially when they complain – about anything. That’s not what visitors come to hear.)

Visitors are always watching you. So if you have a uniform, be careful. You’re on stage.

Another Eisner truism

TEAM, get it.

Questions that some visitors ask.

What time do you feed the bears?
When do deer turn into elk?
What is there to do and see?

Appalachian Stereotypes

Kent Cave, Sugarlands Supervisory Interpretive Ranger, focused on stereotypes. Visitors may come to the park with stereotypes of Southern Appalachian residents.

Kent played a song about inbreeding which was exactly like “Shame and Scandal in the family. I first heard that song on our honeymoon in the Bahamas decades ago.

Ranger Kent played a video about a moonshiner called MOONSHINE. with Jim Tom Hendricks.

The two above examples were amusing. The next, The True Meaning of Pictures by Shelby Lee Adams was not funny but meant to be disturbing. I just added that video on my Netflix queue.

Adams is accused of perpetuating Eastern Kentucky Southern Appalachian stereotypes. The photographer and videographer goes to the houses at the top of a hollow to find the most isolated families. We saw just a little clip of an old woman smoking a pipe, a family with several handicapped children with the strong hint that these folks were inbred.

There’s another stereotype of Southern Appalachian – the self-made man, the “Hell of a Fellow”, the Daniel Boone mountain man type. We can see that in Sergeant York, with Gary Cooper, another addition to my Netflix list.

But I suggested that there’s a third type of visitor. He and she come here thinking that since this is a national park, it was plopped here by the federal government and has nothing to do with the people around the park. They ask questions like:

  • Why were so many battles fought in National Parks?
  • Was the Cherokee reservation put here so they could benefit from tourists visiting the park?

Costumed Interpretation

Then we walked to the Ownby Cabin on a nature trail at the back of Sugarlands Visitor Center. Lisa Free, a ranger, was dressed as resident of the cabin over 100 years ago and weaving a basket.

We were supposed to find problems with her setting. Some were very easy: plastic water bottle, modern sneakers, modern scissors and screw driver with plastic handles.
Others were not so obvious. Look at the photograph at the top. Lisa has rolled up her sleeves above her elbows. Just like religious Jewish women, that’s a no, no.

Ranger Lisa started out by doing first person interpretation, i.e. playing the character, also called Living History. But that’s not done much in the Smokies. There’s not enough training in that and it makes it tough to answer visitor questions when you can’t break character.

Instead, Lisa quickly switched to third-person where she could talk about the owners of the house and the times. This way, it is easier to interact with visitors. Lisa feels a strong sense of responsibility for the people of who lived here.

Today they’re discussing the natural resources. Tomorrow, I’ll be back at Sugarlands to learn about formal programs. We’ll have to give a two to five minute presentation on a topic we’re passionate about. I’m going to talk about the Civilian Conservation Corps in the park. But I pity these newbies who are going to cram tonight to figure out what to talk about.

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