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By Christopher Elliott
Rebecca Klein's kids were ski novices when they checked in at Vermont's Smugglers' Notch resort for a weeklong stay recently. They didn't stay that way for long.
"After just one day of lessons, my 6-year-old son, Seth, was saying, 'Come on, Mom, let's get on the chairlift," remembers Klein, who lives in Baltimore and grew up skiing in Vermont. "And Samara, my 4-year-old, participated in a ski race."
Ski school has come a long way since Klein took her first turns at Smuggler's as a child. Young skiers used to be an afterthought at many winter resorts, banished to the bunny hill or daycare centers while adults enjoyed the mountain.
The U.S. ski and snowboard industry has dubbed January "Learn to Ski and Snowboard Month" and is offering free or reduced-rate ski or snowboard lessons at resorts in 34 states. There's a lot to choose from, including themed ski camps, one-on-one clinics and more exotic offerings, like teaching youngsters how to ride a snowmobile.
"Ski resorts have embraced kids," said Len Saunders, author of the book Keeping Kids Fit: A Family Plan for Raising Active, Healthy Children. "They realize that this generation of parents grew up with skiing and welcome making it a family event. They run specials on kids' lessons, have bunny slopes for the kids, and areas where they can progress at a steady pace, and stock ski rentals for the smaller children."
Smugglers' Notch is among the standouts, when it comes to teaching kids to ski.
Klein's favorite ski school amenity is the Flaik GPS units that allowed her to go online at the end of the day and track her kids' runs, their vertical feet and see where their group skied. But she was most impressed with how effectively the instructors were able to teach her kids to ski in a short amount of time.
"They were very nurturing and empowering," she said.
Fun, too. Ski resorts are pouring resources and creative energy into making the experience as engaging for children as it is for grown-ups.
"Kids ski and ride camps continue to evolve from the good old days of one ski instructor to a big bunch of kids, learning to snowplow and parallel turn," said Heather Burke, who edits the website Family Ski Trips. "Now resorts offer soup-to-nuts programs, all-day camps with equipment and lunch included."
One of the most effective ways to teach kids to ski is to make the trip financially worthwhile to their parents. For example, Ski Utah is offering a program this season called The Ski Utah Fifth and Sixth Grade Passports. For a $25 processing fee, participating fifth-graders can ski at each of Utah's 14 ski resorts three times without paying.
Sixth graders can enjoy one free day at each resort. The program is open to anyone, even though it's billed as a locals program.
At Oregon's Mount Bachelor, adults who buy a three-day or more multiday ticket can get a free kids ticket (18 and under).
Northstar Resort in Northern California lets two adults share a ticket, so that parents with very young children don't have to buy two tickets. Northstar also offers a free "Mommy, Daddy & Me" lessons for first-timers. The 45-minute clinic is aimed at kids between three and four, and is offered on a first-come, first-served basis Sunday through Friday.
At Crystal Mountain in Thompsonville, Mich., kids under 8 don't pay for lift tickets. Other resorts in Michigan, including Big Powderhorn, Boyne Mountain and Marquette Mountain, have similar offers.
"It's a way to make it less expensive on mom and dad," said Brian Lawson, a Crystal Mountain spokesman.
The most innovative ski school programs treat instruction as a themed experience, like winter camp. Crested Butte Mountain Resort's Camp CB winter kids program bills itself as more than a place to learn how to ski and snowboard -- it's a place where, to quote the promotional brochure, "kids rule." Participants get a secret trail map with paths that are just for kids (where adult skis won't even fit, it promises).
There's also a kids-only terrain park where youngsters can learn how to shred.
Although ski resorts are by their very nature rustic, that doesn't necessarily mean kids have to rough it. At the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, near Beaver Creek, Colo., kids can participate in what's called a "Ski Nanny" program, which shuttles them to nearby Beaver Creek Village, where they're met by a nanny who takes them to ski school for lessons and then brings them back to the hotel for a snack and movie.
Saddleback, Maine, just overhauled its ski program to become more personalized. All beginners ages 3 to 6 learning to ski or snowboard at the group lesson will get an individual instructor until they can ski or ride on their own, at which time they join a group.
And at the Homestead resort in Hot Springs, Va., there's more than skiing for students at the Bunny School Skiing Program. The resort also offers snowmobiling lessons where kids age six and up learn to ride on a Polaris 120 cc snowmobile.
The intent behind these and other programs may be to introduce a new generation of skiers -- and potential customers -- to America's mountain resorts. "Once you've developed a love for skiing or riding, it's hard to ignore it," said Adriana Blake, administrative manager for Taos Ski Valley in Taos, N.M. "And we've created a visitor for life."
But the most innovative programs do more than that, says Blake, who helped create Taos' KinderKare school, which she describes as a "slow movement" program for aspiring skiers that goes beyond teaching parallel turns and safe skiing. The most forward-looking programs teach young skiers to appreciate all that nature has to offer during the winter.
"It's great to know that we are sharing our passion for the mountain with multiple generations of guests," she said.
Christopher Elliott is the ombudsman for National Geographic Traveler magazine.
© CHRISTOPHER ELLIOTT DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
Travel | Mountain Resorts Make Skiing a Family Affair