10 ways to recognize the real deal By Alexis Lipsitz Flippin
Want to turn your romance with skiing into a family affair? Ski vacations with children are a bigger business than ever, with more and more resorts promising to get little tykes as young as 3 out on the slopes. Of course, promising and delivering are not always one in the same. While resorts are outdoing one another in providing the latest and splashiest kid-friendly enticements, razzle-dazzle only takes you so far. âItâs all about service,â says Greg Ditrinco, executive editor at SKI Magazine, which publishes an annual list of the 50 best ski resorts in the country, along with a separate list of the top 10 resorts for family skiing. âTraveling with the family on a ski vacation is high maintenance. You need a resort that understands that and finds ways to minimize the stress as much as possible.â
(MORE: Find a top kid-friendly ski resort.)
When a ski destination gets it right, families flock back year after year. If the resort is full of children who know their way around from past seasons, congratulationsâyouâre in the right place. Looking for the gold standard? Head to Smugglersâ Notch, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, which has landed the No. 1 spot on SKI Magazineâs list of top family resorts more than a dozen years in a row. âSmuggs understands what families need,â says Ditrinco. âAnd to their credit, they have evolved along with the modern skiing family.â
For Peter Ingvoldstad, director of Smugglersâ Notchâs trail-blazing Snow Sport University, itâs all about creating a safe haven, both emotional and physical. âItâs a balance: You want to help kids feel secure in their environment and at the same time get out of their comfort zone and try new things,â Ingvoldstad says. âYou want to make sure kids have fun and learn a new skillâone builds on the other.â
(MORE: View a family ski trip itinerary: 4 days in Stowe, Vermont with kids.)
So how will you recognize a family-friendly ski resort? Here are 10 signs youâve found the real deal:
- An emphasis on safety above all. Helmets are de rigueur for children these days, and family resorts should support Lids on Kids, the national ski safety campaign. Ingvoldstad strongly recommends that kids continue to wear helmets as they get older. âI encourage parents to be role models and wear helmets themselves,â says Ingvoldstad. âItâs like a seat belt; why wouldnât you?â Before enrolling your kids in ski school, ask some key questions: Are instructors trained in CPR and other lifesaving measures? What kind of communications system is in place in the event of an emergency?
- Ski programs âplus.â The top ski schools believe that learning to ski should be enjoyable, not intimidating or stressful. âA big part of our philosophy is keeping the frustration levels down and the fun factor up,â says Ingvoldstad. Some out-of-the-box activities might include taking a break to build frontier forts in the snow, or arming young skiers with a just-for-kids trail map and leading them in a moutain-wide scavenger hunt. Look for programs that group kids by age and ability and plan activities appropriate for each group. At Smuggs, the smallest kids are shuttled off to the bunny slope in an open tractor, and get two solid ski sessions daily with breaks for playtime, lunch, and afternoon entertainment (cue magicians, movies, science shows). For kids 6 to 10, there are on-mountain guided treks, games, and the ever-popular Thursday Cookie Racesâexactly the sort of thing that has kids begging to return next year.
- Flexible childcare options. Any family resort worth its salt has a terrific daycare set-up for the under-3 set. Smuggs wows parents with a state-of-the-art, 5,400-square-foot childcare center where kids are divided by age into three rooms (6 to 16 months; 17 months to 2-1/2 years; and 2-1/2 to 3 years). Along with myriad age-appropriate toys, climbing equipment, and playhouses for everybody, thereâs radiant floor heating, a one-way viewing window for parents, and ski-in/ski-out convenience. And donât forget the evenings. Many resorts now offer a supervised âKidsâ Night Out,â where kids get dinner and do fun, age-grouped activities so mom and dad can have a nice dinner out.
- Kid-friendly slopes and teaching tools. âEspecially with very young kids, you donât need radical mountains,â says Ditrinco of SKI Magazine . âYou just need a place that understands what kids need.â Look for beginner-friendly âcarpet lifts,â slow-moving conveyor belts that are easier to master and less intimidating than chair lifts. Kids learn best, says Ingvoldstad, with less talking and more doing. So, from minute one at Smuggs, instructors teach through simple, fun tricksâlike showing kids how they can control their speed by âmaking a pizzaâ with their skis to form a wedge. Instructors should have access to learning aids specifically designed for young novices, such as the Edgie Wedgie, which prevents ski tips from spreading or crossing, and an H-Bar, which helps instructors steer the child through turns.
- A sense of emotional security. This is the X factor. The best facilities understand that building confidence is as important as learning a skill. Look for kidsâ programs that stress not only safety and fundamentals but emotional security and relationship building. Young skiers benefit from routine and continuity, so having the same instructor throughout week helps create a comfort zone. Smuggsâs instructors are more like camp counselors than teachersâthey eat lunch with the kids, take them out on the slopes, bring them back in, and share down time. As a result, âyou see a huge difference in a child from Monday until the time he leaves,â Ingvoldstad says. âHe learns a new skillâitâs a creative experience that is a pretty momentous occasion for a child.â
- Low staff-to-skier ratio. If you spot one instructor taking 10 kids out on his own, thatâs a big red flag. A comfortable staff-to-skier ratio for 3- to 6-year-olds is 1 instructor per 3 kids. Just as important, instructors should be trained to work with children. At Smugglersâ Notch, instructors choose where they want to teach and with what age groupâwhich, says Ingvoldstad, keeps them happy and highly motivated.
- Family-friendly pricing. One big way ski resorts compete for your business is to offer value-added extras. At Smugglersâ Notch, for example, packages include kidsâ lessons, free equipment and helmet rental, pizza parties, many free non-ski events and activities, andâduring certain periodsâdiscounts on daycare. If youâre heading out West, look for resorts offering âkids ski freeâ and even âkids fly freeâ specials.
- Extracurricular fun. Look for a wide array of indoor and outdoor activities, such as tubing, swimming, sleigh rides, snowshoeing, cross-country skiing, treetop treks, ziplining, rock climbing, and skating. Itâs becoming more common to find teen centers filled with video games, pool tables, and even live music. The most family-friendly resorts organize G-rated aprÃ¨s-ski entertainment for the whole family. Think karaoke, bingo, lantern-lit ski parades, and fireworks displays.
- A smart layout. Enormous, sprawling resorts can be totally overwhelming to families trying to keep track of their kids on and off the slopes. And a resort that places the bunny slope right next to Daredevil Hill isnât taking kidsâ needs seriously. The best resorts are set up so that novices and experts naturally steer clear of each other, so look for a trail map thatâs mainly beginner green and intermediate blue on one side of the resort and expert black on the other. Until kids are big enough to haul their own gear, stick to smaller resorts with short walking distances from your condo to the slopes, daycare facilities, and ski school. Anyone who has schlepped a familyâs worth of ski equipment across a huge parking lot will appreciate the bliss of ski-in/ski-out lodging.
- A first-rate ski shop. Goggles get misplaced. Sweaters get left behind. A resortâs ski shop should be able to provide all the winter-sports clothing youâll need to keep your kids safe and warm on the slopes. Never skimp on mittens, socks, hats, and other items that protect the extremities. Since childrenâs boot and ski sizes change from year to year, many parents prefer to rent ski equipment on-site. A friendly, kid-savvy staff should make it a priority to get your young ones into high-quality gear quickly and expertly, and agree to replace equipment at any time.