By Kara Williams
While many ski resorts woo families with stellar ski schools, convenient lodging options, varied terrain for all skill levels, and kid-pleasing on-mountain restaurants, a handful go above and beyond to keep kids of all ages happy, on and off the slopes. After all, what better way to lure lifelong customers than with complimentary chocolate chip cookies every afternoon (Beaver Creek), snowboard rentals for 3-year-olds (Keystone), or free access to bouncy houses and inflatable slides (Smugglers' Notch)?
Here's a look at six US ski resorts that do a particularly good job of rolling out the red carpet for the kids.
Kids ski free at Keystone Resort all winter long. That's right—no charge for lift tickets for children 12 and under, plus no blackout dates. This is huge boon for families who tend to travel during peak-season school vacations: Christmas week, President's Day weekend, and spring break. It doesn't matter if you have one child or six, as long as you have lodging booked for two nights or more in a Keystone Resort condominium or hotel, your kids get free lift tickets for the length of your stay.
Keystone Kidtopia events happen all season long, with parades, ice skating parties, and disco tubing (the speedy snow-tubing hill is a must try for school-age children). Kids love to climb on and around the giant snow fort on Dercum Mountain, with its ice slides, thrones, tunnels, and castle towers. A brand-new Burton Riglet Park and pint-sized rentals allow children as young as three to sample snowboarding (typically, kids start snowboard lessons at age 7).
While Park City Mountain Resort doesn't have a fancy ski-school center or an on-site child-care nursery for visiting infants or toddlers, it does have guaranteed instructor-to-student ratios in its Kids Signature programs. Children ages 3½ to 5 learn to ski in groups of no more than three, while ages 6 to 14 are in class sizes no bigger than five.
Keep an eye out for giant, metal Snowbug sculptures, marking the beginning and ends of safe tree runs dubbed "Adventure Alleys." Open all winter are the toboggan-style Alpine Coaster, providing a speedy ride down 4,000 feet of elevated track, and the Flying Eagle Zip Line.
At Beaver Creek, children have their very own Buckaroo Express Gondola, which whisks them to a kid-friendly learning area at The Ranch. They take a break from ski-school at Marmot Maze, giant tubes buried in the snow to simulate rodent tunnels. Young guests appreciate the mellow Haymaker Tubing Hill (my 10- and 12-year-old actually deemed it too tame last year).
Ski Girls Rock, for girls ages 7 to 16, is a skills- and confidence-building program inspired by Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn; the small-group lessons are led by female instructors. Infants and toddlers spend time in the colorful nursery, Small World Play School, while their older siblings hit the slopes. Guests of all ages flock to the base of the ski mountain for warm chocolate chip cookies every afternoon at 3 pm, delivered by bakers in festive white chef hats.
Like Keystone, Smugglers' Notch has a Burton Riglet Park, with features for "emerging snowboarders" from 3 to 6 years old. On small snowboards with a retractable strap attached (so instructors can guide them as needed), kids sample small rolling hills, mini box-style rails, and a tiny half-pipe as they learn. Smuggs' Snow Sport University offers two-hour lessons at the nifty Burton Riglet Park, or full-day camps.
Smuggs offers a vast array of convenient, condominium lodging, ideal for families who might want to save money by prepping breakfast in full kitchens and who appreciate privacy with multiple bedrooms. When you book a Club Smuggler lodging and lift-ticket package, you get free access to an indoor pool and hot tubs, the snow tubing hill, and the FunZone Family Entertainment Center with indoor mini-golf, ping-pong tables, giant inflatable slides, bouncy house, and obstacle course.
Five beginner surface lifts at Okemo Mountain Resort help introduce never-ever skiers to gentle terrain; for intrepid parents who might want to teach their children on their own, three of the surface lifts are free to use anytime without a lift ticket. Young adult lift-ticket pricing gives teens ages 13 to 18 a bit of a break off of adult prices, and children age 6 and under always ski for free.
When it's time for a break from the slopes, families flock to the Adventure Zone, with a mountain coaster, zipline, Snow Fun Playground, and "Bigloo," tubing hill and big-air bag, where guests ski or board down a ramp and land on a giant, inflated cushion—just like X Games athletes train. For a special treat, book the entire family on a late-afternoon or evening snowcat groomer ride to explore the mountain after the sun goes down.
The variety of slopes at Snowmass makes it extremely appealing to families of varying skill levels. Snowboarders dig the three terrain parks (one with a beginner pipe), cruisers appreciate the wide-open, groomed trails, and experts can get their adrenaline-rush through the trees and on double-black-diamond trails. Off the slopes, kid-friendly activities include storytelling at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center, sing-alongs by the fire on the Snowmass Village Mall, and arts-and-crafts at the Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center.
Two- to 4-year-olds who might not be ready for a full day of ski school enroll in Snow Cubs to get acquainted with skiing on the small learning area outside the eye-catching, two-story Treehouse Kids' Adventure Center in Snowmass Base Village. Then they'll warm up in age-appropriate, themed rooms, like the Fox Den with fun crawl spaces.
Photo Credits: Keystone, CO: Courtesy of Keystone; Park City, UT: Courtesy of Heather McKay Bowes/Park City Mountain Resort; Beaver Creek, CO: Courtesy of Beaver Creek; Snowmass, CO: Courtesy of Snowmass; Smugglersâ€™ Notch, VT: Courtesy of Smugglers' Notch Resort; Okemo, VT: Courtesy of Okemo Mountain Resort
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