“Must be this high to ride.” It’s no wonder so many kids spend their childhoods wishing they were older, or at least bigger: from Disneyland to Six Flags to Elitch Gardens, most amusement parks reserve their best stuff for young adults and grown-ups. Not so in the Vail Valley. High country’s winter wonderland treats little kids like bigwigs, rolling out the red carpet to all levels of fun. Upscale restaurants design three-course kiddie menus; snowshoe races include separate heats for kids; mountain adventure parks field miniature snowmobiles; secret hideaways animate the slopes with tunnels, cartoon characters, and treasure hunts. Kids can plug into just about everything that adults love about Vail and Beaver Creek (excepting the booze, fine wines, and THC-enhanced indulgences, of course), and the rapture is delightfully contagious. Introduce a little one to any of these kid-centric adventures, and you’re sure to reawaken the child within.
Feel the Learn
The early-morning chaos in the ski school pen on Golden Peak had my pulse drumming. “Let’s find your teacher!” I squeaked in an attempt to set a cheerful example for my four-year-old daughter, Simone. Fortunately, the instructor working triage outside knew all about how to quell the first-day-of-ski-school jitters: the cherubic Nate Mitchell welcomed my tentative Simone into his Ultimate 4 group with a hug. Kneeling on the snow so he could chat eye-to-eye with his charges, he assured me they’d have fun. Simone seemed convinced, so I decided to be, too.
The day’s excellent snow conditions added even more confidence. Five inches of fresh powder blanketed the groomers, and I savored the independence to weave through the trees between Berries and Pickeroon and slice across Sun Down Bowl into Widge’s—expert terrain off-limits to a skier who has yet to master her pizza pie/french fry turns. But that was precisely the point of buying her lessons: I believe that skilled strangers can teach my daughter more effectively than I could. In everyday life, I issue plenty of orders: Brush your hair! Say please! Don’t play with that! I didn’t want such power struggles to infect our ski time. “Enrolling kids in lessons can take away the conflict that sometimes crops up between kids and adults,” Greg Willis, general manager of Vail’s Children’s Ski & Snowboard School, told me before Simone’s lesson.
Plus, Vail’s instructors know how to make lessons feel a lot more like games, and their method puts a priority on time spent gliding over snow. “If you emphasize braking and stopping first, that becomes a crutch,” Willis says. Instead, instructors lead kids through “terrain gardens” where built-in uphills slow kids’ speed. That’s way more fun for Simone than hearing me yell, “Slow down!” 40 times on one run.
As is finding buried treasure: many of the Kids Adventure Zones scattered across the mountain contain toy gold coins hidden among these playgrounds’ tunnels and statues. “Mama, look!” Simone exclaimed at the end of the day, when she showed off her loot. “And we gave her some poles,” said Mitchell, explaining that Simone skied so confidently that he deemed her ready to give poles a try. Having none, they used sticks instead. She beamed.
I never even bothered to ask Simone how her day went. Her giddy smile said it all.
Limited to just four students per instructor, the Ultimate 4 lesson is offered for kids, teens, and adults. $354; vail.com
By Prodip Das as told to Kelly Bastone
Even before we got to Vail we researched Adventure Ridge online, and watching YouTube videos of the tubing hill got the boys excited about our trip long before we came out. (We live just outside of London, England.) And Charlotte and I really wanted to build in some time on the snow that wasn’t as athletic as skiing. So after skiing in the morning and having lunch, we spent one afternoon up there.
The first thing we did was the snowmobiling. If you ask the boys (they’re six and nine), they’ll tell you they were going a million miles an hour, though in truth it was maybe 10. They were having such great fun that it made me want to have a go next!
But then it was time to do the zip line, and the boys’ eyes almost popped out just looking at the scale of it. They were nervous, but the guys working it were great and really put them at ease. Doing it built up their confidence and let them go from strength to strength, until by the time it was over they were smiling and exuberant. They were desperate to show their grandparents the pictures of what they’d done. It made them feel like they could do anything.
Finally we did the tubing, which was great because all four of us could do it together. That really cracked into the family’s competitive spirit, as we took up four lanes and had races. First it was about speed, but then we started awarding winners based on style points. It was a great bonding experience, the highlight of our holiday. We were only there a couple of hours, but the boys still talk about it.
And that’s good, really, because they play soccer, and rugby and cricket and piano, and there will be times when they’ll find things hard and will feel defeated. But then we can relate back to that day at the zip line and say, “Remember what you achieved?” It’ll remind them of what they can do.
Located on Vail Mountain at Eagle’s Nest; open from mid-December to early April, reservations recommended;
The Sky’s No Limit
I knew there was no reason to be nervous. My daughter, Simone, was roped to an instructor capable of catching her should she lose her grip on the rainbow-colored climbing wall at the Vail Athletic Club. Plus, the entire gym floor was cushioned and springy, as I knew from watching unroped kids drop from the bouldering holds located just a few feet off the ground. For them, defeat (and its second-long free fall onto the trampoline-like floor) looked every bit as fun as the success of spidering across the vertical and overhanging faux cliffs. Still, my stomach tightened as I watched Simone progress to alarming (albeit indoor) heights.
The Sunday-afternoon family sessions at what has long been the valley’s most popular climbing gym give kids a chance to unleash their inner monkeys. Some line up for a stint in the harness, belayed by an instructor who makes sure that the masses observe safety protocols. Others scramble at-will across colorful plastic hand- and footholds that make the climbing wall look like Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Some may go on to become competitive climbers. Larry Moore, who founded the wall and its youth climbing team nearly 10 years ago, regularly sends kids to the regional and national climbing championships, and participation in his training programs has become so popular that he’s building a new, larger facility in Gypsum.
“It really develops kids’ self-confidence,” Moore says. Of course it would, I thought as I watched Simone suspended 25 feet off the floor. Every move she made was an exploration of her physical and mental potential. Not all of life’s challenges come with the security of a rope and a harness. With them, though, she seemed capable of more than I’d realized—an important parental lesson learned, and I didn’t even have to leave the ground.
Drop-in climbing on Sundays from 3–5 p.m., $10; private lessons also available; 970-477-3239; vailvitalitycenter.com/kidsclimb
“Why are there cards all over the ceiling?” my daughter, Simone, asked the waiter serving us at the Minturn Country Club, where thousands of spades, diamonds, and hearts covered the plaster above our heads.
“That’s T.J.’s magic,” he replied with a bemused smile. “Maybe we can get him to do some magic for you?”
Simone stayed intent on solving the mystery. “Is the magician very tall? He’d have to be very tall to put those cards on the ceiling,” Simone replied.
Yet T.J. Ricci is squarely average in height. The bespectacled bartender at the Minturn Country Club (a cook-your-own-steak restaurant that his dad opened in 1982), Ricci pours drinks and provides a truly unique form of postprandial entertainment: tableside magic tricks.
The act started with playing cards. Simone put her finger on what we’d seen to be a four of spades, but when she released her finger and turned the card over, it was now, inexplicably, a queen of hearts. Her jaw dropped.
Then Ricci produced a little sponge rabbit, which he squeezed in his hand. He also asked Simone to make a fist, and when he snapped his fingers and asked her to open her palm—there was the rabbit, sitting on her hand. He quickly repeated the trick, only that time, five rabbits bounced out of Simone’s clenched fingers. It was one of the most amazing spectacles we’d ever seen.
Beside herself with delight, Simone scrunched her shoulders up to her ears and wrinkled her face. “I haven’t seen her like this since Christmas,” I told Ricci, who seemed first humbled, then pleased. “That’s why we magicians love doing what we do,” he replied.
Ricci learned from a master of magic who worked in Los Angeles and vacationed in Minturn. At the Country Club, Ricci is the maestro. He doesn’t advertise the magic shows—you have to know to ask for a performance, and tips are expected—but over the decade that Ricci has been performing for diners, word of mouth has made him a local celebrity. Vacationers return, year after year, to locate their card on the ceiling and to enjoy an encore.
Now it was Simone’s turn. Ricci handed her a Sharpie pen so she could write her name on a card, which he buried in the middle of the deck. He wrapped a rubber band around the stack and hurled it at the ceiling—which now, somehow, included Simone’s card. The rest of the deck dropped back to the floor, still snug within the rubber band. I hooted as loudly as Simone.
Minturn Country Club, 131 Main St.;
I could tell, from the moment I walked into the Kids Club at the Westin Riverfront Resort in Avon, that this was no mere playroom. Sure, this sunshine-flooded space is stuffed with toys—a mini basketball hoop, a fleet of Hot Wheels cars, a stack of beanbags, dolls from Disney’s Frozen franchise—but despite the host of attractive playthings, kids weren’t zooming around in a raucous free-for-all. Instead, Margie Sheppard presided over the room like a loving Mary Poppins.
“Would you like to do some beading, miss?” she asked one seven-year-old. Each day at the Kids Club is themed (today’s crafts focused on America’s early inhabitants), so three kids sat quietly at the round table painting “bear skins,” making beaded pouches, and shaping clay jewelry. “Can I help you roll that clay out a bit?” Sheppard asked a six-year-old, waiting for her assent before taking command of the rolling pin. Sheppard’s younger colleague, Marla Butler, helped a 10-year-old boy build a fort out of beanbags.
My daughter, Simone, hardly noticed when I announced I was heading out, and she didn’t ask when I’d be back. Nor did she want to leave when I returned for her. After greeting me with a hug, she ran off to a corner to resume her game. Other kids also seemed to prefer the club to real life: glancing at the wall by the entrance, I saw rows of thank-you cards from parents who described the “amazing” effect that Sheppard and Butler had had on their children. Clearly, my need for adult time on the slopes hadn’t turned my daughter into a pining castaway—and that knowledge felt even better than the day’s powder turns.
Kids CAN Ring In the New Year
There’s no need to keep tykes up till midnight when Vail and Beaver Creek celebrate the New Year at dinnertime. TheTorchlight Parade starts at 6:15, when instructors from Vail’s Ski and Snowboard School create a glittering light show on Golden Peak’s slopes with fireworks as a grand finale. Beaver Creek’s Glow Worm Ski-Down actually involves kids and their parents (intermediate ski or snowboard skills required), who participate in a shimmering entourage, watch a fireworks show, then adjourn at 8 p.m. to the Family Bash at Powder 8 (the former McCoy’s in the lower level of Gerald R. Ford Hall) for games, dancing, and a ball drop at 10 p.m. $40/person (free for ages 5 and under) for the Family Bash; other events free; beavercreek.com/newyearseve; vail.com/events/holidaze
When they’ve had the run of the valley’s kid-friendly fun, your kids probably won’t ever want to leave. To make that wish almost come true, consider that the just- completed $8 million renovation of Timbers Bachelor Gulch includes amenities like a bar, a library, outdoor fire pits, a communal climate-controlled wine cellar—and a family game room (shuffleboard, billiards, foosball, and of course a Wii console) and a Timbers Tykes playroom stocked with toys, games, and a performance stage. A 1/12th membership—starting at $110,000—entitles you and yours to repeat all of the above for three weeks every year.