Campers across Ontario were recently introduced to a new reservation system for the Ontario Parks, a system that came with many promises. Did it deliver? Has the new system improved our experience as we step into a new decade of camping? Today we’re going to look at the Ontario Parks new reservation system including what’s working and what left many of us shaking our heads.
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If you’ve been camping in the province of Ontario, then you’ve likely heard (or experienced firsthand) that the online reservation system for the provincial parks has been in desperate need of an update. Don’t get me wrong, the old system was workable – we have all been using it since it rolled out in 2011. However, it was clear that as technology has advanced and the world of camping has evolved, the old system was quickly left behind. It didn’t even support mobile use which is the most popular way we access the internet today!
In an effort to improve the experience of the camping community, we recently saw the release of the Ontario Parks new reservation system. Announced at the end of 2019, the system came with many promises of new features, better functionality and more options as we move into the new decade. Did they deliver?
As an avid camper, I have been spending my summers at parks through the Ontario Parks system for my entire life. I don’t mean that as an exaggeration of any form – when my mother was pregnant with me, she spent the summer camping at Six Mile Lake Provincial Park and I have been camping at that same park (along with a variety of others) every summer since. It’s a family tradition. This means that I’ve had the opportunity to watch the parks grow and evolve including the introduction of online reservations, the growing demand for hydro-supported campsites with the increased popularity of trailers and RVs and more.
When Ontario Parks announced they were working on the new system, I was excited. We live in an incredible technological age today and there are SO many possibilities. A new system could make reserving a site quicker and easier while considering aspects like additional online payment options and improved site information. To add to the excitement, they also announced some changes to the park rule including at least one that immediately caught my attention.
As we prepared to book our first camping trip in April 2020, I jumped on the new system ready to explore. While I will agree that there are some improvements, there are also aspects that left me sadly disappointed – an opinion that I have seen shared across various camping groups I belong to online. Let’s break it down…
Table of Contents
Pet-Friendly Roofed Accommodations
While this isn’t a change to the reservation system itself, let’s start on a high note. One of the changes announced as we move into 2020 was a change to the ‘no pet’ rule that has been in place for all Ontario Parks roofed accommodations. Starting April 1, 2020, they will now offer a limited number of dog-friendly cabins and yurts around the province.
This was an exciting announcement for dog lovers like us. My husband and I have always been intrigued by the idea of a winter getaway in a yurt, but we refuse to camp without our pups by our side. For our family, camping is a ‘pack’ activity.
In these designated locations, dog owners can bring 1-2 dogs with them on their adventures for an additional $20/night. These rules do not change based on the size of your dogs and it does not apply to cats which are still not permitted in any roofed accommodations at any of the Ontario Parks. The rules are simple – dogs must remain on leash when outside of the yurt or cabin (unless you are in a designated leash-free dog beach or exercise area), and the dog owners are responsible for any damage caused throughout their stay. Simple, right?
While the limited number of dog-friendly accommodations is going to make it challenging initially for dog lovers like ourselves to book a location, I am sure that those in charge will see the huge demand for these options and more will open up as we move forward. That assumes, of course, that dog owners using these accommodations are respectful – one bad seed can ruin it for all of us!
If you’re interested in exploring dog-friendly roofed accommodations at the Ontario Parks, you can see the list HERE.
All Car Campsites Are Now Reservable
Another change that is now rolling out that isn’t directly related to the reservation system necessarily is the shift to only offering reservable sites at the Ontario Parks.
What does this mean? In the past, individual Parks have designated a small number of sites as ‘non-reservable’. This meant that they could not be booked in advance of your stay, offered on a ‘first come, first served’ basis when you arrived at the park itself. While some appreciated the opportunity to snag a site by arriving bright and early, especially when interested in an in-demand park where all reservable sites had long been claimed, others were less than enthused by the idea of taking chances with their vacation, preferring the security of having a site booked and guaranteed months in advance.
The response to this change has been mixed in the months following the announcement. Personally, I believe that there are some pros and cons to the shift. On one hand, there is increased revenue for the parks themselves as they are more likely to see the more popular parks. At times a site would sit unused simply because no one was willing to risk driving all the way to the park to possibly have a site available upon their arrival. However, on the other hand, the removal of ‘non-reservable’ sites can make camping more difficult for those who may not have the option of booking months in advance.
At this point, I think I will reserve any conclusions until we see how it plays out for a season.
Backcountry Campsites, Cabins, Yurts, Cottages and Group Campsites All Available for Online Booking
While the online reservation has been the go-to spot for booking car camping sites, it didn’t always support the other options available. With the new system, ALL Ontario roofed accommodations across the province will be available for online booking. Furthermore, those who prefer the rustic experience of backcountry camping can now book their full or advance registration (depending on the park) online in preparation for their upcoming stay. This availability makes it easier than ever for all campers, regardless of their preferences, to plan out their vacation at any of the Ontario Parks.
With this change comes an update to the payment rules relating to backcountry camping. Up to this point, a campsite could be booked through the park with a deposit and the remainder was due upon arrival. Moving forward with the new system, backcountry campers will now need to pay in full when making a reservation in the same way that car camping sites require.
Reservable Picnic Shelters Now Available Online
Another addition to online booking availability is the use of picnic areas at various parks. These spaces are often used for group functions such as birthday parties, wedding celebrations or family reunions. Previously, to book a shelter at any of the parks you would have to contact the park directly. If you were considering a variety of locations as options, this could make for a drawn-out process as you had to reach out to each for information on cost and what was available. Now, these options are all available to you with the click of a button.
I can’t say that I have ever booked a picnic shelter at one of the parks for a function. To be honest, when booking events, Ontario Parks hasn’t crossed my mind as an option to explore. However, with this info all readily available now, I could see myself entertaining the idea in the future.
Electronic Gift Cards
This is one change to the new system that I REALLY enjoy! While gift cards were previously available through the Ontario Parks (a great gift idea for avid campers), you had to contact the parks and book by phone to use them. For those who prefer the ease of online booking, this was a hassle. In the Ontario Parks new reservation system, gift cards can be entered as a form of payment allowing recipients to quickly and easily redeem their gift certificates online.
This is DEFINITELY an option I could see being used in our family moving forward! I know that I would be more than happy to receive an Ontario Parks eGift card.
The Online Reservation System Itself
Now it’s time to get down to the real review, the actual Ontario Parks new reservation system itself. After all, that’s what this post is about, right? Having gone through the motions of booking my first site, I have to say that my opinion is mixed. While the new system has some improvements, some aspects are frustrating, disappointing or even concerning.
I want to take a moment to note that all complaints regarding the new system should be taken with a grain of salt as everyone adjusts. People are, by nature, resistant to change. Therefore, there has been A LOT of negativity regarding this change in the camping groups I belong to. I have seen long rants about missing information that was actually available just in a different spot, for example. Before passing judgment, I recommend that each person take the time to sit down and experience the system for themselves. I’m sure that I am going to make some statements here that others don’t agree with, and that’s okay! As with any review, it’s important to ultimately find out for yourself.
When you first open the system, it’s clear that there’s been an update. The initial page is clean and easy to understand. At this stage, they ask the minimal information necessary to direct you to the next stage of the booking process – the park you are considering booking at (if you know), your anticipated travel dates, the equipment you will travel with and your party size.
Some of this information is required (such as the equipment), however, if you aren’t sure what park you want to book at, leave it ta ‘Map of Ontario’ and it will give you an overview of availability in the province based on the information provided. You can then select an area of the province and continue to narrow down your search from there.
One of the concerns that I have seen regarding the new system is the availability of additional search terms. If you click on the ‘Filters’ option underneath the basic information, it will open up several additional considerations to narrow down your search. This includes:
- Site Shade (Full Shade, No Shade/Full Sun, Partial Shade – AM Sun, Partial Shade – PM Sun)
- Double Site (Yes, No)
- Electrical Service (15 Amps, 30 Amps, 15/30 Amps, 15/30/50 Amps)
- Pull-through (Yes, No)
- Barrier Free (Yes, No)
- Restrictions (Walk In, Barrier Free, No Vehicles, Radio Free, No Tents, No Pets, No Motorboats, Tents Only)
If you have a clear idea of what you’re looking for when booking your next vacation, these filters will help you to narrow your search, making it quicker and easier to find the perfect site for your needs. If, however, you are unsure, simply leave them blank.
When you select a park, the system will open up to a map page showing the various campgrounds within that park. At this stage, it’s easy to see where you have options available to you and where you don’t. Underneath the name and site range of each of the campgrounds, you will see a small dot indicating availability (green = sites available, red = all reserved, black = not operating at that time, etc.). There are also small icons that will show here indicating a variety of options including whether that specific campground includes electrical and/or non-electrical sites, radio-free, group camping and dog-free locations.
Similar to the old system, you can select your site based on the map system, clicking the campground and then the site that you are interested in. You also have the option to view the available sites in a list or on a calendar by selecting each of these options. Which one is best? It’s all about personal preference!
After you select a site, this is where things are different and confusing for many long-time Ontario Parks customers. The site information will no longer open up in a popup in front of the map. Instead, it will open a small information page to the right of the map (beneath on smaller screens such as on a tablet). This provides some very basic information including whether or not the site offers electrical service, the pad slope, maximum visitor capacity, the fee type (whether it is a premium site or regular rate), the ‘allowed equipment’ for that specific site and a very brief description.
There IS more information available, but you have to click ‘view more details’ to access this. Selecting this will open a window that displays detailed information about the site including the ground cover, privacy, available vehicle parking on and off-site, any obstructions and the fireplace location. Here’s the first major complaint I have about the new system – they have removed the site measurements. If you are looking to select a site of a specific size, you now have to guess based on the pictures and their listed allowed equipment. If you have a large trailer or RV and want to ensure there is also room for a dining shelter, for, example, you would have to contact the park to ask.
If you find a site that fits your needs, the rest of the reservation process appears to be quite easy and straight forward. However, while working through these steps I discovered my next criticism – the site speed. I was booking a mid-April site, which meant that the majority of campers haven’t even started booking yet as the May long weekend is often seen as the official start of the camping season. While the site wasn’t incredibly slow by any means, a slightly slower site with that level of traffic runs a high-risk of a much bigger lag as traffic increases moving into the busy season! It will be interesting to see how the site stands up as we move forward.
Another positive shift that I have seen with the Ontario Parks new reservation system is the inclusion of a ‘live chat’ option. Rather than sitting on the phone, if you have issues during the reservations process you can visit the Contact page and speak with a reservation agent. I will be honest and say that I didn’t actually chat with anyone myself, so I can’t speak to the customer service or reliability of the live chat feature, but the fact that it’s there is a small step forward.
Where this immediately falls short for me is the fact that you have to seek it out. If you are in the middle of a reservation and experiencing problems, the last thing you want to do is search for help. There are SO many tools online today allowing websites to easily provide a live chat option right in the corner of the screen. I even have one on my other blog Unapologetically You! There is no reason why an organization as big as Ontario Parks couldn’t take the next step, making their chat support easily accessible while actively using their site.
Finally, one of the big promises with the Ontario Parks new reservation system was mobile functionality. As you can see in the above screenshots, the new system does display in an easy-to-read format on mobile devices, very true to the original desktop version of the system. There are, however, some glitches that need to be revisited, as there are with any new release! For example, trying to use the map option to view sites can be incredibly frustrating. I found that trying to click on a campground often didn’t click through, instead just pulling up explanations of the various icons.
In addition to being glitchy, the mobile site (like the desktop site) was running slower than it should have been at that time of year. Between the glitches and the speed (that’s only going to get worse as traffic picks up), I’m not sure it’s going to be the reliable option that campers need as we move into the camping season.
My final thoughts? While I think that the new system was well-intentioned and offered a lot of promise, I can’t say they delivered to the level that was expected. There is no reason for a government website to lack so severely in functionality in our modern society.
While this is certainly not going to stop me from booking campsites and spending our time at the Ontario Parks, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the final result. Here’s hoping that it will exceed my expectations with the coming surge of traffic. With a little more attention to detail and functionality, I do think it has potential!
What are your thoughts on the Ontario Parks new reservation system? What changes are you most excited about/upset by? I’d love to hear your opinions in the comments!