Two-for-one deals and other discounts are being offered at two of Alaska's most popular national parks in a pitch to get tourists to consider visiting the land of the midnight sun in springtime.
During the busiest summer months last year, the state received 1.63 million out-of-state visitors who collectively spent $1.5 billion, with 1.3 million of those guests in Alaska on vacation, according to the Alaska Office of Tourism Development.
While "No Vacancy" signs sprout like fireweed around Alaska in June, July and August, that is not the case in May. Two companies that cater to visitors would like to change that.
In an effort to start the tourism season early, visitors are being offered discounts for accommodations near Denali National Park and Preserve in Interior Alaska and inside Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve in Southeast Alaska. Denali is the fifth most popular tourist destination in Alaska, followed by Glacier Bay.
The idea is to entice visitors to the parks a bit earlier in the year, said Dawn Williams, sales manager for Denali Park Resorts.
Visitors mistakenly think that Alaska is too chilly in May, preferring instead to visit during the peak months of June and July, Williams said. But, the weather actually can be very nice with temperatures reaching into the 70s Fahrenheit, she said.
"I think looking at the weather report the other day, we were 2 degrees warmer than Orlando, Florida," she said, laughing when reminded Florida was in a severe cold snap at the time.
Williams said even weather in the 50s and 60s F can be nice.
How about 44 degrees F? That is the average daily temperature from May 1 to June 1 at the Eielson Visitor Center at mile 66 on the park road inside Denali National Park, according to Scott Berg, a meteorological technician with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
But Berg agreed with Williams. On warm spring days, it can go into the 70s F, especially nearer to the park entrance, he said.
Denali National Park 175 miles from Anchorage — home to Mount McKinley, North America's highest mountain at 20,320 feet — expects to get more than 425,000 visitors this year, with most of them showing up between June and August.
May in the 6-million-acre park is slower, with the scene still a bit wintery. The park's visitor center will open May 15. The entire length of the park road is not expected to be open and passable until June 8.
Early season visitors have a better chance of seeing wolves and caribou along the part of the park road that is open in May, said park spokeswoman Kris Fister. The animals tend to move away from the road and further into the park with the increase in tour buses later in the season, she said.
Even though some of the facilities are not open in May, "It is a nice opportunity to get here when the park is less crowded," Fister said.
Denali Park Resorts operates four lodges outside of the park, which has no overnight accommodations within its boundaries. Three of the lodges are within a mile of the park entrance. The other is eight miles away. The company's four lodges have a combined total of over 900 rooms, Williams said.
Between May 13 and June 6, the company is offering a "Twice as Nice" deal where visitors can get two nights for the price of one at the McKinley Chalet Resort, Grande Denali Lodge, McKinley Village Lodge or Denali Bluffs Hotel. The price is $199.
In addition, Denali Park Resorts is offering two new package deals — Denali Dreamin' and Discover Denali. The Denali Dreamin' package, priced at $148.99, includes a one-night stay at the McKinley Chalet Resort, admission to dinner theater performed in a roadhouse and breakfast for two. The price is 30 percent off regular rates, Williams said.
The higher-end Distinctive Denali package for $805 includes GoldStar service on the Alaska Railroad from Anchorage or Fairbanks, two nights at the McKinley Chalet Resort or Grande Denali Lodge, a wilderness tour, dinner for two, two tickets to dinner theater and breakfast for two. The price is a 15 percent savings, Williams said.
In recognition of the park's 90th anniversary, Denali Park Resorts also is offering $90 room rates sprinkled throughout the tourist season. Rooms normally go for between $229 and $279.
Glacier Bay Lodges and Tours is offering an early season discount at the Glacier Bay Lodge, the only lodge licensed to operate inside the 3.3-million-acre Glacier Bay National Park in Southeast Alaska. Guests can book one night at the lodge for $150 and get the second night free.
The park, where summer temperatures average between 50 and 60 degrees F, is expecting more than 400,000 visitors this year, with between 90 and 95 percent showing up on cruise ships. The first cruise ship arrives May 9.
It does not start with a trickle, said park ranger Rosemary Salazar.
"It pretty much starts with a splash," she said.
Ferry service between Juneau and Glacier Bay also is being offered new this year, Williams said. Visitors last year had to fly to the park. The price for a one-way ticket aboard the resort's catamaran is $70 per adult and $40 for a child.
Glacier Bay Lodges and Tours also is offering for the first time a three-hour whale watch and dinner tour where visitors have a good chance of seeing humpback and killer whales, as well as sea otters, Steller sea lions and puffins.
"We are trying to lure more visitors to come up in May when it is not as crowded and rates are better," Williams said.