How to Find the Best Family-Friendly Ski Resorts

Beaver Creek, photo courtesy of the Park Hyatt

Skiing is a wonderful family activity. Expense aside, it is a sport that all ages and genders enjoy, and when kids are old enough, families will appreciate the time spent on vacation together—versus a pool or beach environment where everyone may be doing their own thing.

Qualifying what makes a ski resort great for families is important since terrain, facilities, and amenities vary widely. Age has a significant impact on things to consider, but there are some general attributes that contribute to making a ski area truly family-friendly.

Ski School

A well-run ski school is an absolute must. If you are an expert skier and you’re going to teach your kids to ski on your own, this may not be important, but for the rest of us, we need and want a safe and reliable place to bring our children. I’ll write a dedicated post on this in the next few weeks, but suffice to stay that skiing can be a dangerous sport and ski school is set up where you drop your kids off and leave them in somebody else’s care for several hours.

You wouldn’t drop your kids off at a day care facility without knowing anything about it. Ski school is the same deal, not to mention that most day care facilities don’t involve chairs perched high in the air. We picked our 6-year-old from ski school a few weeks ago and realized that they outfitted him in his gear without a helmet. You can imagine the follow up conversation I had with the head of the ski program.

Of course, learning to ski is the point and you hope your kids acquire skills while they are there, but this is secondary to an organized and safety-oriented program.

Terrain

The beauty of skiing is that once kids are off the magic carpet and can take the lift, you can spend time skiing with them on your own. Plentiful kid-friendly beginner terrain that is easy to access is critical. Easy in this context means you don’t have to take a gondola and two lifts to get there, but you have some options from the base of the mountain.

Beginner terrain that is also the main thoroughfare for advanced skiers to return to the base of the mountain is terrifying with very young kids that are just learning to ski. It’s not about what you or your kids are doing, it’s about what everyone else is doing! Once nice thing about Sun Valley (ID) is that there is an entire mountain that is practically dedicated to kids learning to ski. This is the ultimate, safe and comfortable environment.

Once kids reach intermediate levels, new options open up, although, it’s nice to find resorts that have quite a bit of intermediate terrain in a concentrated area — Northstar (CA), Deer Valley (UT), and Beaver Creek (CO) are great examples or resorts that fit this description.

Skier Profile

The different ski resorts seem to attract certain clientele. Squaw Valley (CA) is a teenager’s dream with a younger vibe.Subsequently, your 5-year-old may learn some choice new words in and around the lift line. There are certain resorts that are all about families versus the 20-something ski crowd. Northstar is a great example of a resort that fits this profile. Young kids are everywhere and for the most part, people behave accordingly. I also love Sun Valley for a family-oriented atmosphere. Sherman’s Travel has an excellent round up in their top 10 North America ski resorts for families article.

Convenience

As much as I love skiing, cranky moments are likely and convenience is essential to avoiding parent and child meltdowns. Skiing takes gear and there is nothing more aggravating then carting all that stuff around and realizing you’ve lost $50 gloves or goggles somewhere along the way.

Where you stay makes a huge difference. Of course, ski-in/ski-out facilities are wonderful—but not critical—as long as there are other ways to get family gear to and from the ski area. Things that help:

Ski Lockers – Some properties like the Vail Mountain Lodge (CO), are not slopeslide, but have an arrangement for free ski lockers that are, so you don’t have to schlep your stuff back and forth every day.

Ski Shuttles – Many resorts offer ski shuttles that will bring you from your accommodations right to the slopes. If you plan on using one, make sure the shuttle can drop you off at the ski school too.

Ski School Location – Ski schools that are nestled right at the main base of a mountain are optimal for convenience. Moreover, the ski programs that include rentals and you get to just drop your kids off and they take care of the rest are very nice. Note that lodging that is ski-in/ski-out may not be ski-out from beginner terrain and/or the ski school.

Condos are appealing from a price and amenity standpoint, but they may not have the above-mentioned convenient elements. This is why we love condos in a resort setting like The Village Lodge at Mammoth (CA) and The Village at Squaw Valley (CA) where you have the best of all words, kitchens, living space, value, and services to take the edge of ski logistics.

Kid-Friendly Activities

It’s nice to have an array of kid-friendly activity options available for non-ski days. Tubing is a blast and more resorts now run tubing hills with a magic carpet to help get up to the top of the mountain. Although, this activity can be expensive—we just went tubing at Sun Valley and they are charging $15-20 per person per hour for their program. Ouch.

Ski villages can be a fun diversion with ice skating, trampolines, fire pits, and general merriment. Northstar is one of my favorite ski villages—everything is beautifully done, convenient, and fun for all ages. Also, some properties have year-round swimming available like Clay Brook at Sugarbush (VT).

Value

Skiing is expensive, period.There are ways to make the costs less painful.

Packages – Look for accommodation packages that include lift tickets. Ski resorts are hungry like every other vacation venue this year and have some attractive options in place. Some resorts in Colorado are even offering packages that incorporate flights too. We’ll publish any offers for our portfolio on our Special Offers page.

Kids Ski Free – Some resorts have Kids Ski Free programs. Steamboat (CO) has a compelling program where children under 12 ski free with parents/grandparents. At Mammoth, kids under 6 ski free. Although, these programs don’t help with the cost of ski school. We will put together a list of these programs in the next few weeks and post it on Ciao Bambino.

Meals – Lunch at a ski resort is insanely expensive. Packing a lunch and keeping it in a locker is a good option. This is also where condos are useful. If you can easily get to your condo over lunch for a hot meal and then head back out for more skiing, you’ve already saved $50 per day.

Off-Season – Many resorts offer special pricing pre and post season. For resorts that have a long winter like Mammoth, you still may enjoy great conditions and spend less.

Relevant Links:

Vermont family ski resorts

Colorado family ski resorts

Kids ski tips

6 Comments

  1. Wanted to give a shout out to my local mountain: Mt. Bachelor (www.mtbachelor.com) in Central Oregon for their Kids Ski Free deals. They also have a great tubing park for $20-$25 per DAY. Great family place and often overlooked.

  2. Great information here – I especially appreciate the insights about what sort of vibe each resort has (ie, teens, families, etc.). We’ve tried Tahoe Donner with young kids to get them up and running.

  3. Any suggestions for European ski resorts that are especially kid friendly (especially for younger kids)?

  4. Lucia – This is a good question. We don’t have much information on skiing in Europe with kids. We’ll do some research in the next few weeks and then post the information on the CB Blog. Thanks for bringing this up! -Amie

  5. Thank you for this great source of information!
    Do you have a calendar for kids ski free for 2013?
    we have started quoting prices for spring break… and that will make a difference!
    Thank you in advance!

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