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Is Mickey Mouse Moving to Yellowstone?

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I just got back from the classic American family vacation in Yellowstone National Park and, honestly, I can’t wait to go again. In just a few days, we saw wolves, egrets, elk, mule deer, golden and bald eagles, and at least a thousand bison.

But, enough about the wildlife. Let’s talk about Mickey.

Xanterra Parks & Resorts, the company with the National Parks Service concession for lodging in Yellowstone, only holds that valuable gig through November 2013. The NPS is currently accepting bids for a new 20-year contract to cover lodging, retail, food & beverage, campground, marina, transportation, and other services.

Yellowstone saw 3.64 million visitors in 2010. While some of those people were day-trippers, viewing the bison from the safety of a tour bus, many more of them ate a meal, bought a souvenir, booked a trail ride, and more than a million visitors spent a night in one of the park’s nine hotels. All those visitors represent a potential profit. But, of course, there’s great cost involved.

The prospectus from the National Parks Service includes a lot of required investments and improvements—a $44.6 million initial outlay, plus almost $135 million worth of upgrades to properties and campgrounds. The proposed contract also raises the NPS fee from its current 2.46% of the annual gross receipts to 6.8%.

Bidding closes October 15. Rumors at the park mentioned Disney, Carnival Cruises, and Marriott as parties interested in the concession (an NPS spokesperson couldn’t confirm specifics but said it seemed there would be “robust competition” for the contract). There’s some muttering about the potential price hikes and fears about what blasphemy may take place if “imagineers” are brought in to re-envision the historic properties (Moose/mouse ears?) or tidy up the rough-hewn edges.

I’m worried, too. While I know the companies rumored to be bidding are all capable and intelligent, the astonishing magic of Yellowstone requires protection and stewardship, not polish and marketing. Cross your fingers and hope that the winner understands the park, not just the profit.

Ann Shields is a senior digital editor at Travel + Leisure.

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