For decades, park and recreation professionals have been creating opportunities for enjoyable experiences. However, the value of enjoyable experiences is only now being widely recognized. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Pine and Gilmore (1998) argued modern economies increasingly rely on experience as an important element of the value in economic exchanges. As such, it follows that providing opportunities for exceptional experiences, or extraordinary experiences, can be a competitive advantage in the marketplace for some organizations. In this paper, extraordinary experiences are defined as those that are highly memorable, very special, and emotionally charged. Park and recreation managers are well positioned to provide opportunities for extraordinary experiences, although there is a gap between theory and practice. Much of the existing research focuses on the experience of novel tourist settings, while familiar everyday settings such as municipal parks have been neglected. In light of this, the purpose of this research is to explore extraordinary experiences in both novel and familiar settings in hopes of identifying particular aspects that can be managed by park, recreation, and tourism professionals.
In this study, 89 extraordinary experiences were analyzed. Descriptions of extraordinary experiences were collected from undergraduate students participating in study abroad programs to China and Uganda. Participants were first asked to reflect on the previous academic year and to describe in detail up to three very special, wonderful, and memorable experiences that occurred within the college setting. In a similar fashion, participants were asked to recall extraordinary experiences that occurred while traveling through Uganda or China. In this way, extraordinary experiences in both familiar and novel settings were captured. Analysis involved identification of themes within the data that might explain the nature of the experience. Results suggest that extraordinary experiences, although rare, occur in familiar and novel settings. Important facilitators in familiar settings included challenging activities that lead to accomplishing meaningful goals, activities that reaffirm and strengthen social bonds, spontaneity, and being outside. Other facilitators played a secondary role including evaluation, friends, and reflection. Important facilitators in novel settings included outdoor adventure sports that by their nature are challenging, cross-cultural experiences that can also be challenging, and reflection. Secondary facilitators were evaluation and fabled settings such as the Nile River. Last, a wide range of emotions that appear independent of setting typified experiences. These include but are not limited to anxiety, awe, excitement, happiness, harmony, inner peace, joy, nervousness, sadness, and shock. Managerial and professional implications are discussed.