Shortly after noon on Monday, a woman emerged from the lobby of the landmark Ahwahnee hotel and went to work in the breezeway that leads guests into the lobby.
Slowly and painstakingly, the hotel employee – who declined to give her name – took out a razor blade and began to scrape the name “Ahwahnee” off the windows as guests stood speechless or whipped out cellphone cameras to record the event.
By midnight, all such signs, napkins, telephone nameplates, bars of soap and other materials bearing the names “Ahwahnee,” “Curry Village” or “Yosemite Lodge” were expected to be removed or covered up – the result of a battle between the U.S. government and the park’s outgoing concessionaire over what the names are worth.
Even the phrase “Yosemite National Park” has become part of the dispute. All T-shirts, coffee mugs and other souvenirs bearing the park’s name were being sold at 50 percent off until the end of the day Monday, then removed from the sales racks.
On Tuesday, a new park concessions company takes over. The departing company, a subsidiary of New York-based Delaware North, trademarked the names during its tenure and now contends it must be paid for them. The U.S. government says it will change the names rather than pay Delaware North the sum it is asking.
“We’ve had a lot of strong feedback over the names,” park spokesman Scott Gediman said. “There’s a lot of emotional connection that people have to these names and these places.”
So much so that a round wooden sign that has welcomed visitors to the Ahwahnee since 1930 was pried off its stone structure and stolen over the weekend before it could be moved or covered up.
At the heart of the dispute is money. Lots of it.
Delaware North has run the hotels and concessions in the park since 1993. But it lost its recent bid to keep the contract, which instead went to Aramark, based in Philadelphia.
Aramark, which already runs operations in nine parks, won a $2 billion contract to service Yosemite for the next 15 years starting Tuesday. It had 200 people at the park Monday to work on the transition, company spokesman David Freireich said.
About 95 percent of Delaware North’s 1,100 employees at the park applied for and are expected to start new jobs – with new company uniforms – Tuesday.
But Delaware North wasn’t going without a fight. The firm sued the federal government last September for “breach of an implied-in-fact contract” and complained that the bidding for the new deal wasn’t fair.
Then, during the legal squabble, Delaware North disclosed that it owned the trademarks to the historic names of Yosemite. It said they were intellectual property, and worth $51 million – money that should be paid by Aramark.
The park service was not amused, countering in court that it values the trademarks at $1.63 million.
Delaware North issued a statement Monday saying it had offered to assign the trademark names to the park service, with the amount to be determined during litigation.
But with Aramark poised to begin operations on Tuesday and no one interested in paying tens of millions of dollars to Delaware North, the park service announced in January that it would change the disputed names, at least temporarily.
The Ahwahnee is to become Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Yosemite Lodge at the Falls will be known as Yosemite Valley Lodge. Curry Village will become Half Dome Village. Wawona Hotel will become Big Trees Lodge. Badger Pass Ski Area will be dubbed Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area.
The park, which celebrated its 125th anniversary last year and attracts visitors from around the globe, found itself in an odd position this week. Hotel and deli employees were peppered with questions from guests, including why the only produce available for sandwiches was tomatoes. (Delaware North hadn’t ordered any new vegetables for days, one employee whispered.)
At the Ahwahnee, the concierge desk handed out fliers proclaiming that it was a “very exciting time in Yosemite’s history” and warning guests that they couldn’t charge food or drinks to their room accounts past noon, though credit cards or cash were fine.
Some visitors to the sun-splashed park on Monday fumed at the notion that the names might disappear forever.
“We came because my mom wanted to come on the last nights,” said Pat Pierson, 63, of San Jose. “She’s 91 and wanted to stay in the Ahwahnee the last night.”
Pierson said she had snagged one of the few Ahwahnee coffee table books left in the park – at the retail price of $20 – and had packed her suitcase with some souvenir Ahwahnee soap bars.
Her mother, Gerri Wood, said she had been coming to Yosemite for decades and did not believe the properties should be renamed.
“I don’t know, but it just seems as though this name goes with the park,” Wood said as she and her daughter disembarked from the free park shuttle in the hotel parking lot. “We just identify with that.”
In the hotel breezeway, where the name “Ahwahnee” was being scraped away into a pile of plastic shavings, Karin Lefler of Walnut Creek had strong feelings.
“I don’t think the National Park Service should cow to the greed of a major corporation,” she said as she and her husband, Ron, watched the razoring take place.
“We’ve been coming here for 35 years and we love it … I think it’s sour grapes,” she said. “They didn’t get the renewal of their contract, and it’s sour grapes.”
Lefler also said she did not believe Delaware North had thought the matter through.
“My thinking is, OK, who are you going to sell the name ‘Ahwahnee’ to, who are you going to sell ‘Curry Village’ to, if not the new vendor,” she said. “So what value does it have if you can’t sell it to the new vendor or the National Park Service?”