Melanie was so excited by her hot-pink ski boots that she was oblivious to the pandemonium.
Some of the 3-year-olds were wailing for their mothers: Others were just as loudly laughing, clopping around in ski boots, practicing keeping their balance. Their patient young instructors zipped jackets, tugged on mittens and buckled boots at Winter Park Resort's big, bustling Children's Center to get these pint-sized skiers ready to hit the slopes.
Just 67 miles from Denver, Winter Park is one of Colorado's largest ski areas -- with three mountains in the Vasquez Mountains of the Arapaho National Forest and a total of 59 miles of trails. Many Coloradans have traditionally brought their children here to learn to ski. In fact, the 55-year-old resort was one of the first to have a major children's facility.
Today it boasts a cheery, 32,000-square-foot, multilevel
children's center and a 25-acre Discovery Park designed for beginners. Expert skiers in the family, meanwhile, can get all the challenge they crave and then some, skiing on Mary Jane Mountain.
It was a family milestone of sorts: Melanie's first time on skis. At nearly 4, she clearly can't wait to give the sport a try and had talked for weeks about her "ski preschool." Certainly it helps that her big brother and sister, as well as mom and dad, love to ski.
Lots of company
By the looks of the crowd -- 36 kids her own age -- Melanie's got plenty of company, all of their parents paying $60 for the privilege (including lessons, lifts, lunch and day care in between.) That's true around the country at large and small ski areas alike.
"Our children's ski school is growing 10 percent a year," says Susie Tjossem, director of the Children's Ski Schools at Vail and Beaver Creek. She notes the areas now have some 400 instructors trained to teach children.
Her advice: Don't watch the young kids' lessons. "When they see mom and dad, they fall apart," she explains.
And don't try to teach them yourself. "And please don't take them up the mountain until they know how to stop," adds Dan O'Connell, director of Winter Park's Children's Ski School. (Call Winter Park at  729-5813, Vail and Beaver Creek at  525-2257. Call  2-SKIWEE and ask where the respected children's ski program developed by Ski Magazine is offered.)
When calling a ski resort to book a trip with preschoolers, ask if you need reservations for the ski school. Frequently, they're a must.
We did what such experts as Mr. O'Connell and Ms. Tjossem suggested to get Melanie ready for skiing, strategies they've used with their own kids. At home, we explained that ski school would be a lot like nursery school.
We arrived the afternoon before Melanie's first day at ski school to let her get a look around and meet some of the instructors. We got her equipment then too, so she could try out walking in ski boots. That extra afternoon gave us all a chance to adjust to the altitude.
At Winter Park, Mr. O'Connell explained, the emphasis is on having fun in the snow.
That was a nice way of telling me I shouldn't expect Melanie to be executing perfect turns after two lessons. Many parents do, ski instructors lament.
Not me. I was amazed to see my baby even standing up on her skis, much less moving up the slight incline of the "Magic Carpet," a slow-moving snow sidewalk. There is no lift: The kids stand still as they're pulled up; they ski down.
Melanie had a blast. I watched from afar as, with her instructor's help, she got her balance. By her third day, she'd learned to push her skis into a wedge. By the end of the week, she could stop and was gamely leading us down some of the gentlest slopes. "I can ski rings around you!" she announced happily at the bottom.