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Northwest Trek wildlife park opens to driving tours after coronavirus halts bus tours

Guided caravans of private cars could help the Eatonville park recoup some of the $2 million in lost revenue caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

EATONVILLE, Wash — Two and a half months after closing due to COVID-19, Northwest Trek wildlife park is hoping to bring the public back by allowing people to tour the park in their own cars.  

Park officials said Northwest Trek would normally see roughly 41,000 visitors between March and May. The park closed on March 13 in response to the coronavirus pandemic, and the closure has cost the park about $2 million in revenue. One-third of staff at the park are currently furloughed.

“It’s been a really significant hit,” said Alan Varsik, Director of Northwest Trek and Point Defiance Zoo. “We really are dependent on our operational revenue to care for our animals every day and to continue to have a state-of-the-art facility.”

Normally, visitors pay $25 per adult to pile into trams that carry 90 people through a free-roaming area, where guests can see bison, moose, caribou and mountain goats ambling freely on 435 acres of park land.

Varsik said COVID-19 forced the park to find innovative solutions to give visitors access while also enforcing social distancing.

“We quickly identified if we kept folks in their own cars within their households, we could usher them through the free roaming area,” Varsik said.

The 10-car DIY driving tours, called “Wild Drives,” cost $70 per vehicle for members and $80 for non-members. Drivers reserve a spot on the Northwest Trek website and line up at the park at the designated time.

A guide in the lead car narrates the drive on an app that visitors can download.

“I think it’s brilliant!” said Nikki Capoeman, who brought her children on the tour. “I know a lot of businesses are closing because of the financial hits they’re taking and so this is an opportunity for them to maybe recoup some of the money they’re losing because they don’t have the people coming in and buying tickets.”

Northwest Trek’s financial challenges have been reflected across the Metro Parks Tacoma district. Metro Parks has reported $13 million in lost revenue and close to 650 employee layoffs and furloughs.

Varsik said the the park’s Wild Drives are already proving popular. Starting May 27 the drives will be offered seven days a week through the month of July.

But Varsik acknowledged the drives will not solve all of the park’s financial problems.

“I think time will tell,” he said. “At the current level that we’re running it, it won’t meet all of our financial needs, but we’ll see how this evolves through time.”

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