If it snows, they will come. But will they bring the kids?
Increasingly, the answer is "yes." Children's ski programs are growing so quickly that areas are literally outgrowing facilities.
Two years ago, Heavenly at Lake Tahoe, Calif., moved its corporate offices off-site to make room for an expanded children's center. "But we already need even more space," says spokesman Tom Jensen.
No one has a larger children's center than Winter Park, Colo., where some 25,000 square feet are reserved for infants' napping rooms, lunchrooms, and developmental play rooms. "Still, we could use more space," says Dick Oursler, who has brought in temporary pavilions for some of the other children's classes.
Vail, Colo., may have been the leader in setting up a children's-only cafeteria. The first one seated 40; it was such a success that the second, open this season in the sister resort of Beaver Creek, will hold 130 hungry youngsters.
Most areas accent socially mature 3-year-olds for introductory ski/snow classes. If you can find one, a full-day program is $45; that price drops to $26 when it's added to a resort ski package. You'll fork over closer to $70 a day at Vail, and that won't include rentals.
If your family spans the spectrum from infant on up, it's no longer necessary to flip a coin to settle who forgoes skiing to tend the babies. A few areas accept infants as young as 6 weeks; 6 months is more common. But check out the program -- some resorts do not take children until they're old enough for snow-play classes at age 3. At Mammoth, in California, kids don't go into group lessons until age 4; that's the age when they can concentrate on skiing and skip much of the snow play necessary for younger ones.
"We've had expectant parents call in September -- before the birth of their child -- to reserve space over Christmas," says Nancy Nottingham, director of Vail's children's skiing centers, who oversees 180 child-care employees. At all resorts, day-care reservations are a must; Snow Cubs in Snowmass, Colo., regularly reaches capacity during Christmas, President's weekend and the last two weeks of March.
Snowbird, Utah, opened an infant-care facility for age 6 weeks and up this year. Smugglers Notch, Vt., a leader on the East Coast for its family innovations, also accepts 6-week-olds in its 6,900-square-foot Alice's Wonderland center. Ditto for Tiehack Ski area (formerly called Buttermilk, outside Aspen). Keystone Resort, Colo., pioneered day care for infants and continues to accept 2-month-olds, as do Winter Park and Breckenridge, Colo. Some areas, including Vail and Keystone, supply parents with beepers to keep in touch during the day.
It's not just that more children are skiing each year, but more are in classes. Vail and Beaver Creek together tally over 350 children's instructors. At many of the major resorts, such as Keystone, children make up about 45 percent of all ski-school participants.
Children's instructors pass the same proficiency tests as adult instructors and undergo extra training to learn unique ways to explain a technically complex subject. Nearly everywhere, child-friendly jargon includes putting skis in the french-fry position (parallel) and making a pizza (the wedge). "Snow snakes" take the blame after a tumble.
As a precursor to riding on the slow-moving beginner lifts, Vail pioneered the Music Carpet, a kind of snowbound conveyor belt that moves children a very short distance up the hill. Look for it at three locations in Vail and Beaver Creek and in Winter Park.
Vail has packaged a five-day children's program, for ages 3-12: lift tickets, lunches, rentals, and lessons for $325.
Mountain-adventure parks continue to proliferate. They've been refined to Disneyesque proportions with five complex ski-through adventures at both Vail and Beaver Creek. In Vail, Fort Whippersnapper alone covers 15 acres with a mine sluice, three ski-through mines, anIndian village, several buildings and a saloon serving free hot chocolate.
At Smuggler's Notch, Vt., the beginning skier's Magic Learning Trail includes nature stations, exploration paths and a ski-through cave inhabited by Billy Bob.
Another innovation this coming season: Ski Break, a supervised rest area in Beaver Creek, open 1:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. It's for kids ages 3 to 8 skiing with parents. When the tots are tuckered out, parents can drop them off and let them unwind on bean-bag chairs, play quietly, or watch videos.
More and more areas are setting aside "family-only" or "children-only" acreage. The reason is safety: Beginners enjoy a less-threatening environment when they're not keeping one eye out for speed demons. Winter Park spent $2 million over the summer on a 20-acre, mid-mountain learn-to-ski park, served by two lifts including a quad. At Sunday River in Maine, the gentle South Ridge learning area is served by three lifts, and advanced skiers have no access to its upper slopes.
Tiehack (in Aspen) has been called America's finest learning mountain. Panda Peak and other sections are groomed specifically for the learning process. At Fort Frog, new last year, old wagons, jail, saloon, and tepee village are the setting for characters such as Max and Moose who roam the area on skis.
This year, the question won't be whether to bring the kids but whether parents will be able to drag them away from the slopes and back to school when the vacation's over.