Whether it's the thrill of gliding through packed powder snow or sipping cocoa by a crackling fire, there's no more enjoyable way to create warm wintertime memories than a trip to a family-friendly ski resort. On mountains across the country, groups of tiny skiers in brightly colored parkas can be spotted snaking down in single file behind instructors, making faces as they go.
More than 4 million families with children went skiing in 2000, making it one of the fastest-growing markets in the industry, according to the Lakewood, CO-based National Ski Areas Association. And kids are discovering the fun of skiing at ever-younger ages in 2000: 14% of children on the slopes last year were under the age of 5, with the rest divided evenly between the 5-to-10 and 11-to-15 age groups.
The excitement of the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Utah has added to the popularity of skiing and other cold-weather activities. The good news for novice skiers is that the learning curve is light years shorter than it was even a decade ago, thanks to the new hourglass-shaped skis and improved instructional techniques. Resorts offer programs that virtually guarantee to get you up and skiing in a day or two.
Other options for fun on the slopes include snowboarding, the fastest-growing snow sport in the country, and snow tubing, a form of glorified sledding that requires no skills at all. For a slower pace, you might try the new, easy-to-use snowshoes, go ice-skating, or pamper yourself with a spa treatment.
Child's 10 top ski areas for families offer wonderful programs for children and adults (and non-skiers too!). No matter which you choose, the payoff is watching your children take to the slopes with confidence -- and maybe even nurturing their own dreams of going for the gold.
One of Aspen's four ski mountains, Snowmass is by far the most family-friendly. Picture an on-mountain children's area with its own lift, three race courses, moguls, and even a mini-terrain park.
Why kids love it: Once they've learned the basics, they'll swarm the adventure zones and make friends with characters such as Burnie the Bear.
Why parents love it:This is Aspen, after all, with more trendy shops and restaurants than you can visit in a week.
Why families love it: Tubing lovers will flip over Tube Town, with a rope tow and warming hut.
For non-skiers: Have fun at the free sled and toboggan hills.
Children's programs: Snow Cubs offers daycare on and off the snow for kids 8 weeks to 3 1/2 years old; group and private ski lessons are offered for ages 3 and up. Kids 3 to 10 can participate in a Night Hawks program with evening activities.
Lodging: Stay in a slopeside condominium, or try the ski-in/ski-out Silvertree Hotel. 800-598-2004; www.aspensnowmass.com.
While Bretton Woods is a picturesque ski mountain with wide, easy runs and a loyal following, it's the adjacent Mount Washington Hotel that gives it its cachet. Only recently refitted to stay open in winter, this 100-year-old grand dame hotel boasts Old World furnishings, secret nooks, and even an indoor heated pool that kids can explore without drawing disapproving glances from the staff.
Why kids love it: Plenty of novice terrain makes children feel as if they own the mountain.
Why parents love it: Friendly ambassadors at the ski area greet visitors upon arrival with directions and offers of assistance.
For non-skiers: You can ice-skate, ride on a horse-drawn sleigh, or try snow tubing.
Children's programs: The hotel's Kid's Kamp for ages 5 to 12 offers cooking with the chef, movies, and crafts. At the mountain, the Hobbit Ski and Snowboard School offers instruction for ages 4 to 12. The Babes in the Woods play and ski-readiness program offers semi-private instruction and nursery care for ages 3 to 5.
Lodging: In addition to the Mount Washington, there are condos, a country inn, and a motor inn. 603-278-3320; www.brettonwoods.com.
For an all-inclusive ski experience, you can't beat the newly opened Club Med Crested Butte family village. Located at the base of the Crested Butte chair lift, Club Med serves up the ultimate in one-stop shopping: accommodations, dining, ski and snowboard school, and equipment rentals all in one location.
Why kids love it: Mascots Clubber and Medy ski with kids.
Why parents love it: The above-average cuisine features everything from upscale French fare to chicken fingers and fries.
Why families love it: Club Med attracts an international crowd, so don't be surprised if your children learn a foreign phrase or two.
For non-skiers: The town of Crested Butte offers a historical peek into the real Wild West.
Children's programs: The Mini Club Med, included in the overall price, is available for kids ages 4 and up; snowboarding is offered for ages 6 and up. Indoor activities include games and movies, plus nighttime parties with costumes and snacks.
Northstar, on Lake Tahoe, tops the list of family-friendly West Coast resorts for its manageable size and beginner and intermediate terrain. Families who prefer popcorn by the fire over disco will fit right in.
Why kids love it: The Paw Park adventure zones offer bumps and jumps designed for young skiers and snowboarders.
Why parents love it: A Parent Predicament lift ticket allows parents to share one ticket -- perfect for folks who alternate skiing and watching the kids.
Why families love it: A free one-hour Mommy, Daddy, and Me clinic offers tips on skiing with kids ages 3 to 5.
For non-skiers: Hitch up to a dog sled for a 20-minute tour, or hop on a guided snowmobile tour.
Children's programs: The Minor's Camp offers an all-day childcare program for 2- to 6-year-olds with learn-to-ski options available. Starkids and Shredkids packages, with skiing and snowboarding, are available for ages 5 to 12 and include tubing, lift ticket, and rental equipment. New this season is a Startykes program for 4-year-olds that offers tubing and alternate snow sports for kids not ready to ski.
Lodging: Try the Village Lodge or private condominiums. 800-GO-NORTH; www.skinorthstar.com.
Okemo is a great choice for visitors who want the intimate ambience of a family-owned New England resort. This is scenic Vermont at its prettiest, and the staff gives plenty of personal attention.
Why kids love it: The SnowTracks Nature Program, incorporated into ski and snowboard lessons, teaches children about the animals whose tracks crisscross theirs on the mountain.
Why parents love it: Unlike many New England ski areas, Okemo is located adjacent to a real village, where visitors can explore the restaurants and boutiques.
Why families love it: All trails lead to one central base area, which means finding each other for lunch is a snap.
For non-skiers: Go from winter white to putting greens at the impressive Okemo Valley Indoor Golf Academy. Or try ice-skating at nearby Dorsey Park.
Children's programs: The Snow Star Skiers takes kids ages 4 to 7; Snow Star Riders teaches snowboarding to those 5 to 7. Programs for older kids also are available. The Penguin Playground Day Care Center for kids 6 weeks to 8 years takes non-skiers for full and half days; the Mini Stars program adds an introductory ski lesson for 3- and 4-year-olds. Activities include arts and crafts and outdoor play. Evening hours allow parents a night out.
Lodging: Mountain condos are plentiful. Kids 12 and under stay free; children 6 and under ski free. 800-78-OKEMO; www.okemo.com.
All eyes will be on Park City this winter as it gears up to host six Olympic events. While the actual venues will be closed during the Games, families can ski and snowboard at the resort all season and get a taste of the excitement.
Why kids love it: Children can take ski-jumping classes from pros or try the Ice Rocket Rides (for kids at least 50 inches tall), which use the Olympic bobsled and luge track.
Why parents love it: When they need a break from the slopes, they can hit one of the great local museums.
Why families love it: The resort offers a magical wintry experience at Christmas, the Heber Valley Railroad "Polar Express" train to the "North Pole," where kids hear the popular children's book, sip hot chocolate, and ride with Santa back to the train depot. (Reserve ahead.)
For non-skiers: Stroll through the historic mining town of Park City, or ice-skate at the base of the mountain. Special concerts, festivals, and rodeos are planned for Olympic-year visitors.
Children's programs: Small-group ski lessons are available for ages 3 and up; indoor activities include music, crafts, and storytime. Mom, Dad & Kids ski lessons are available.
This Rocky Mountain resort consistently wins awards for its children's program. Best of all, parents can enroll kids, buy lift tickets, and rent equipment at the one-stop Kids' Vacation Center.
Why kids love it: The indoor weeknight Kids' Adventure Club for children 4 to 12 offers supervised games, movies, and snacks. Weekly Activity Night includes pizza and activities.
Why parents love it: The Kids/GrandKids Ski Free program allows children to ski free with paying parents or grandparents for five or more days.
Why families love it: Among the places to explore is the Rough Rider Basin, a kids-only zone with teepees, a Colorado mine shaft, and a log cabin playhouse, accessible by its own surface lift.
For non-skiers: Strap on snowshoes for a guided full-moon tour.
Children's programs: Activities are available for ages 6 months to 6 years, with ski lessons and age-appropriate outings such as gondola rides, sledding, puppet shows, and movies.
Lodging: The area boasts numerous hotels and condos, but the Steamboat Grand Resort Hotel offers on-site daycare, ski valet service, a game room, and seasonal vacation packages. 800-299-5017; www.steamboat.com.
Located north of Montreal, this popular ski area boasts a colorful pedestrian village, French-Canadian ambience, and some of the best family amenities around.
Why kids love it: They can explore the pottery shop and ride the funicular to the main square.
Why parents love it: They can choose from dozens of restaurants, some with outdoor seating warmed by roaring heaters.
Why families love it: At the Aquaclub La Source, kids can swing from a rope into an indoor pool while Mom and Dad luxuriate in a Jacuzzi.
For non-skiers: Enjoy the favorable exchange rate at shops that line the main square.
Lodging: Hotels include Le Westin Resort and the Marriott Residence Inn. 88-TREMBLANT; www.tremblant.ca.
Vail is known for its challenging terrain, especially the Back Bowls and the new Blue Sky Basin, but the big news is that it's also great for families. What little one wouldn't like exploring a Wild West jail or a cave filled with fun eco-facts?
Why kids love it: There are 12 Kids' Adventure Zones for children to explore on skis and snowboards, and kids' theme days include race day with ribbons.
Why parents love it: The menus at Chaos Canyon Kids' Cafe will take the tears out of family dining.
Why families love it: Half the fun of going to Vail is wandering the streets of the village itself with its Tyrolean atmosphere, shops, and restaurants.
For non-skiers: Try snow tubing, snowmobiling on a special kids' track, laser tag, ice-skating, or snowshoe tours.
Children's programs: Ski lessons are given for ages 3 and up, all-day ski or snowboard lessons for ages 7 to 14. The Small World Play School offers daycare and crafts for non-skiing children from 2 months to 6 years.
Lodging: Good family-friendly options include the Landmark in Lionshead and the condos at Manor Vail. 800-270-4870; www.vail.com.
Can't get to Utah this winter? Head to Lake Placid, which hosted the Olympics twice. A big draw for families: the Kids Kampus, where children have their own ski school, restaurant -- and mountain!
Why kids love it: At Kids Kampus, they don't have to dodge rowdy teens.
Why parents love it: A special lesson trains adults to teach their preschoolers to ski.
Why families love it: You'll think you're in Switzerland, thanks to the European feel of Lake Placid.
For non-skiers: Visit the lookout deck atop the Olympic ski jump.
Children's programs: Kids Kampus is open to ages 4 to 12; daycare is available for ages 1 to 6.
Lodging: Choose from condos, inns, and franchises (Hilton Lake Placid). 800-44-PLACID; www.whiteface.com.
Copyright © 2001 By Felicity Long. Reprinted with permission fromthe December/January 2002 issue of Child magazine.