New York State parks set another record for attendance, attracting 2.6 million more visitors last year than in 2017, as just over 74 million people enjoyed beaches, forests and historic sites, officials said.
Long Island’s 31 sites chalked up the state’s third biggest gain, with attendance rising almost 7 percent to a record 25.6 million.
That is 35 percent more than in 2013, one year after superstorm Sandy mauled so much of the Island, including many parks. Adverse weather was blamed for the three years of declining attendance that preceded the storm.
The gains in 2018 were ascribed to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s $900 million, decadelong renovation plan to make up for years of neglect during lean budget years.
Allowing families and caregivers to share Empire Pass Cards instead of limiting visits to the sole vehicle bearing a decal also boosted attendance, said Cuomo, who noted that tourists power the economy.
"State Parks are at the heart of New York's tourism economy, attracting visitors from all over the world to discover the history and explore the beauty of our great state," he said in a statement on Monday.
Long Island’s star performer this year was Wantagh’s Jones Beach State Park, which gained 2.55 million visitors.
The park, prized for its 6.5-mile long beach, playgrounds and boardwalk that draws walkers and bikers year-round, last year attracted 8.5 million beachgoers.
Officials pinned much of the increase on the reopening of the Boardwalk Café, which had been closed for 14 years, one element of a $65 million overhaul that restored mosaics, signs and lights, enhanced children’s areas and added a spray pad, and restored the West Bathhouse and the Field 6 bathhouse.
Attendance also spiked at Wading River’s Wildwood — up 120,325, Kings Park’s Nissequoge River State Park — up 86,520, and Lloyd Harbor’s Caumsett State Park — 64,954.
However, some Long Island state parks saw steep losses. They included Babylon’s Robert Moses State Park — down 369,503 Montauk Point — down 203,313; Kings Park’s Sunken Meadow — down 342,131; and Bay Shore's Captree State Park — down 185,372.
Local weather conditions often were the main reason individual parks posted varying results, said George Gorman, Long Island deputy regional director of the state Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Microclimates can vary sharply along the 118 miles that Long Island stretches, experts said.
Looked at solely from Long Island MacArthur Airport, the weather in 2017 and 2018 was highly similar. There were 35 days when rainfall topped one-hundredth of an inch in the summer of 2018, four more days than in 2017, according to meteorologist Faye Marrone.
Automated counting systems, newly installed at Jones Beach, also drove up the numbers, proving much more accurate than previous estimates that were quite conservative, Gorman said.
The parks’ rising popularity has a downside too, advocates say. While they applaud the prospect of creating new nature-lovers, whom they hope will support the parks, they note the department’s workforce has fallen, just as it has at most other state agencies. This can mean there fewer people to pick up trash and handle maintenance.
“We think people need to use parks; it’s a positive sign,” said Carter Strickland, New York state director for nonprofit The Trust for the Public Land. “We need to make sure we are investing in parks to keep with it.”
Overcrowding is a familiar snag on Long Island, when a blazing summer sun, a national holiday or a crowd magnet, such as the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach, bring out more people than the parks can handle.
When this happens, “We do everything we can to try to alert the public,” Gorman said, including updating signs and contacting the media. Beachgoers headed for Sunken Meadow on the North Shore might be sent 21 miles south to East Islip’s Heckscher State Park instead.
“When we see we’re going to fill to capacity, we close, we redirect traffic to other locations so a park is not overwhelmed, and people can still have an enjoyable time,” Gorman said.
- New York State parks drew about 74.1 million people last year, a gain of 2.6 million from 2017.
- Long Island state parks led all regions, attracting 1.7 million more visitors, for a record of 25.6 million.
- The state’s most-visited park once again was Niagara Falls State Park, with 9.5 million visitors, up 80,862.
- Jones Beach State Park in Wantagh came in second, with 8.5 million visitors, up 2.6 million.
- Though attendance at two Long Island state parks fell sharply — Robert Moses in Babylon, down 369,503 to 3.7 million, and Sunken Meadow in Kings Park, off 342,131 to 3.2 million — they were New York State’s third- and fifth-most visited sites.
- Coming in fourth was New York City’s Riverbank State Park, with 3.6 million visitors, up 368,517.
- Long Island’s least popular park was the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site in Huntington Station, visited by 4,304 people, down 2,190 from 2017.
- Just three of the state parks departments’ 11 regions saw declines: the Palisades, the Saratoga/Capital region and the Taconic.
Source: New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation