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Parenting in the Park
Tips and ideas for the traveling family
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Adrienne Krock, editor
Ham Radio at the Parks

Just over a year ago, a group of our friends were planning a trip to Walt Disney World. One major issue they faced was how to stay in communication with each other. Family Radio Service radios (which Byron discussed a few weeks ago) are nice, but their range is limiting. Our friends wanted to be able to reliably communicate between multiple resorts, not just within one park. Cell phones would work, however, as California residents with little need for nationwide coverage, using cell phones in Florida was not very efficient or affordable. In addition, cell phones work well for two- way communication but this group of 10 would need higher capacity for maximum efficiency.

Two of the 10 already held Amateur Radio (nicknamed "ham radio") licenses. Several other members of the group studied for their ham radio test online and earned their licenses before going to Florida as well. The group enjoyed efficient communication for eight whirlwind days in Orlando!

A disclaimer: While I am not a "techie," I am married to one. I do understand a number of basic electronic concepts and I frequently find myself able to explain these in basic terms to other non- techie types. Today's column does not describe amateur radio in detail, but provides some general information that may inspire others to learn more for themselves.

One of the newer models from Radio Shack
One of the newer models from Radio Shack

What is Ham Radio?

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) licenses Amateur Radio operators to transmit and receive several types of communications (audio, video, Morse code, etc.) over certain radio frequencies. The level of your license determines which frequencies you can use. With a basic Technician license, operators can use all allowable frequencies above 50 MHz within certain "frequency bands" or groups. (Several frequencies are blocked for other types of transmissions, such as police radio, FM radio broadcasts, cellular phones). With the most advanced license, operators can use all FCC designated Amateur Radio frequencies. Even with just the Technician license, an operator has a wide range of radio frequencies to choose from, in addition to the very limited number of FRS "channels" or frequencies.

Licensed operators are also allowed to transmit their communications with a lot more power than FRS radios, which are limited to 0.5 watts of power. This is enough to transmit over a couple of miles "line- of- site", where there is no obstruction, such as buildings, between the people using the radios. While hams are licensed to use up to 1500 watts of power for transmissions, most "handy- talkies" (hand-held radios or HTs) are capable of 5 to 6 watts of power, which is enough to transmit over many miles.

More about Ham Radio Range

Similar to FRS radios, ham radios can communicate directly with each other in "simplex" mode. In this mode, many hand- held ham radios can transmit as far as 30 miles with the range being affected mostly by large geographical barriers such as mountains, trees, or buildings. Usually, hand- held radios are used to communicate within a few miles or so, and if a greater simplex range is required, more powerful car- mounted or mobile radios are available with larger antennas. However, there is a way to extend the range of the hand- held's transmissions. Unlike FRS radios, hand-held ham radios can use "repeater" stations to relay their radio signals to greatly increase the distance of radio coverage.

There are public repeaters located throughout the country, most of which are provided as a public service by local clubs or corporations. Ham operators may use these for communication in a responsible and courteous manner. Keep in mind that using a repeater greatly increases the number of people who can hear your transmission. There are several websites which publish local repeaters and the American Radio Relay League publishes a directory of repeaters which is updated annually.

Ham radios are available at stores including Radio Shack, catalogs, and even ham club- sponsored swap meets. While a new hand-held radio can cost $150 to $500, local clubs can frequently help you find deals on used radios for considerably less.

Ham Radios are useful outside of Disney parks, too!

This summer, our family took a camping trip near Lake Tahoe. Kevin, Matthew and I packed our trendy sports utility vehicle and caravanned with other family members for a 12- hour drive to our campsite. There were several areas en route where we had no cell phone signal, however, we were in constant communication with ham radios because each car always had a licensed ham operator in it.

In addition, along the way, we often passed through towns where our conversations were overheard by local monitoring ham operators. We were able to "meet" some friendly folks this way.

Ham radio is more than just a useful tool for travelers. There's a civic element, since police and fire departments rely on ham radio during emergencies. 

There is a social aspect, too. Some ham radio operators are deeply involved in club activities. Others enjoy building radios and antennas, and experimenting with radio communication. And then there are those, like my husband, who use their radios for recreational communication. One trait they share is that they tend to be friendly and willing to help you out... unless you are operating your ham radio illegally or improperly. It is important that you become licensed so that you know what the regulations are. To operate a ham radio without a license is illegal, unethical and frankly, it's rude.

How to get a license

Getting a ham license is relatively easy, but it does require some legwork. Fortunately, there are many resources available online to assist you. To begin, go to the Ham Test site. Here you can study for the test. Then, find out where there will be a test session near you at the American Radio Relay League. There is a small charge of less than seven dollars to take the test. Once you pay this fee, you never need to pay to renew your license. Every 10 years, you are responsible for renewing your license, which amounts to sending in a short form that says you are still alive and interested in continuing your service as an Amateur Radio operator. Many sites say that you can confirm your call sign online three to seven days after taking your test, but be warned: it can take longer than that! Plan plenty of time to study, to take the test, and to find out your call sign before you need it.

The balanced view

Ham radios are not private. If you're communicating via ham, chances are that others are listening in; the airways in populated areas are monitored by fellow ham operators for appropriate content, usage, and distress calls. Family Radio Service transmissions can also be heard by other FRS operators and scanners, and, like it or not, eavesdropping can also occur with cell phones.

Ham radios are not cost free, either. They require that you invest time to be licensed and money to buy a radio. However, they do provide flexibility and the ability for multiple users to communicate efficiently over fairly long distances. After your initial investment, there are no reoccurring fees or charges. If you become active in local clubs, they may have fees, but you also receive added benefits such as an "autopatch" or radio connection to the public phone network!

If you're planning a vacation to a large resort such as Walt Disney World or Disneyland where your group may be split with one party at a hotel and another at a park, or two parties at two different parks, a ham radio will give you more reliable reception than an FRS radio. This can be especially useful if one parent needs to return to the hotel for a youngster's naptime while the other parent remains in the park with older children. Groups can even communicate between two completely separate parks such as Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm or Magic Kingdom and Universal Studios Florida.

To find out who you know with a ham license, you can visit this website and don't be surprised to find a few MousePlanet names there. But don't look for my name, yet. It will be there soon, though. A fellow MousePlaneteer and I are planning to join our husbands on that list and get our licenses too!


Wanted: Your questions and feedback! They will help me plan future columns! Write me at: AdrienneK@mouseplanet.com

A FEW HAM RADIO TIPS:

*The propagation at Disneyland is going to be better on the 70cm band. 70cm has an easier time penetrating buildings, so that is an advantage. In Southern California, most of the 70cm band is taken, but 446.0 and 446.5 are two common simplex frequencies. The disadvantage is that the Disneyland repeater runs on 2M.

*There is no age minimum for earning a ham license. As long as you can pass the test, you can hold a license. However, keep in mind that just as there are studies to determine the long term effects of cell phone use, there are concerns about radiation exposure with the 2M band. 

*When you're using a ham radio or even an FRS radio, it's a good idea to wear an earpiece. This will allow you to monitor for messages from family and friends without disrupting fellow visitors. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Adrienne gathered experience taking kids to amusement parks when she worked as a day camp counselor and director. She was an elementary school teacher before she started her favorite job, being Matthew's Mom.

Adrienne and Matthew visit Disneyland several times a month, usually with Daddy, too.

Besides Matthew, Adrienne and her husband Kevin created and maintain The Happiest Potties on Earth website.

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