Big changes are coming to Yosemite National Park, and not just the spring thaw. On March 1, a new park concessionaire takes over -- with a new reservations phone number -- and the historic names Ahwahnee, Wawona and Curry apparently will fade into history. At least for a while.
The good news is that park officials say all existing reservations will be honored by the new management, which has a website to answer questions: www.travelyosemite.com. The new reservations phone number is to be unveiled on March 1. Until then, you can find information and make park lodging reservations at www.yosemitepark.com or by calling (801) 559-4884 or (801) 559-5021.
The incoming company is Yosemite Hospitality, a subsidiary of Philadelphia-based concessions giant Aramark. The outgoing company is DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite Inc., a subsidiary of Buffalo-based concessions giant Delaware North. Spokespersons on all sides say they're committed to a seamless transition. And so far, no prices have changed.
But this is the first such transition since 1993 at the park, whose concessions amount to a $146.6-million-per-year business. And the handover has been made more awkward by legal disputes between the National Park Service and Delaware North.
The operation is "inherently complex," said Aramark spokesman David Freireich. However, he said, "we've been working around the clock since last summer really to do everything possible to ensure a smooth transition."
And as it happens, the transition comes to a head on March 1, the day after Feb. 29 (the added leap-year day that brings its own risk of confusion every four years).
So if you're headed to the park in the coming weeks or months, what should you do?
If you have reservations at one of the park's lodgings, the new concessionaire has pledged to honor them and plans to begin sending out confirmations in March. If your pending reservation is for a stay in March, it wouldn't hurt to call to confirm as soon as the change-over takes place.
If you're camping, relax. Concessionaires don't run the park's 13 campgrounds. The NPS handles the campgrounds that take advance reservations at www.recreation.gov, and none of those procedures will change. Similarly, the Redwoods in Yosemite, a collection of rental cabins in the park's Wawona area, is independently run and unaffected. Also unaffected is the popular Tenaya Lodge, an upscale hotel that's run by Delaware North and stands just outside park boundaries in Fish Camp.
Park officials said that Yosemite Valley's free shuttle buses would continue to circulate. Aramark spokesman David Freireich said the company didn't anticipate major changes in other park bus routes, but details are still being sorted out.
Horseback rides are expected to continue in the Wawona area. But the last summer was the final season for day-use horseback rides in Yosemite Valley or Tuolumne Meadows, park spokesman Scott Gediman said. And the Tuolumne Meadows Service Station, Tuolumne Meadows Sports Shop and Happy Isles Snack Stand will not reopen this summer.
Those changes, Gediman said, were in the works before the new contract was awarded.
NPS and Aramark officials say the new contract calls for upgrades at the park's restaurants and hotels. But timing and other details haven't been disclosed.
As for the name dispute, if no 11th-hour deal is reached among the concessionaires and the park service, the following changes take effect on March 1:
The Ahwahnee Hotel (named in the 1920s) becomes the Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
Curry Village (whose name dates to the late 19th century) is to become Half Dome Village.
Yosemite Lodge at the Falls becomes Yosemite Valley Lodge.
The Wawona Hotel (another name that dates to the 19th century) becomes Big Trees Lodge.
Badger Pass Ski Area becomes Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.
Meanwhile, Tenaya Lake's name remains unchanged, despite (or because of) its grisly history.
The name controversy flared in June 2015, when the NPS gave the park contract to Aramark, spurning incumbent Delaware North. Though the NPS owns the affected hotels, cabins and ski slopes, Delaware North filed a lawsuit in September in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims, arguing that in the course of taking over the concession in 1993 and running the park since then, it has gained control over various names associated with the park and that it should be paid $44 million for those names and other intellectual property.
Federal officials have argued that those names and assets are worth no more than $1.6 million, Gediman said. In January, the NPS decided to rename several park landmarks, perhaps temporarily, depending on how the legal battle goes.
In any event, Gediman said, historical details such as the Camp Curry entrance gate, the Wawona Hotel's painted façade and various details at the Ahwahnee will be preserved because the structures are protected for their historical significance.
NPS figures show 4.1 million recreational visitors came to the park in 2015; and concessionaire gross receipts of $146.6 million in 2014.
Aramark has eight existing NPS contracts at locations such as Mesa Verde, Olympic, Denali and Glacier Bay national parks and the Lake Mead and Glen Canyon recreation areas. Its new Yosemite contract is for 15 years and covers 12 lodging properties, 14 food-and-beverage outlets and 17 retail locations.
Freireich said the park concession workforce would remain about the same size -- roughly 1,100 employees, increasing with the crowds of summer. Though Aramark is still making personnel decisions, Freireich said the company expects to offer jobs (with comparable wages and benefits) to "more than 95% of the current workforce." In other words, he said, many of the names and faces in the staff will remain the same."