Hans Vollarath understands the power of storytelling. For 20 years, as the Walt Disney Company’s senior manager of business development, Vollrath was tasked with ensuring that every new theme park attraction, show, parade, restaurant, and cruise line was imprinted with a Disney-branded back story that would resonate with guests.
Now, as the senior director for Vail Resorts’ Activities Line, Vollrath is overseeing the rollout of Epic Discovery (which debuted in Vail and Heavenly in June of 2016 and will take over Breck's mountaintop in the summer of 2017). VR’s blueprint for luring visitors to spend time—and money—on its snow-free mountains in the summertime off-season promises big-ticket attractions, augmented with Disney-style narratives.
“There are so many wonderful stories to be told about the mountain that just can’t be told as easily or completely during winter,” Vollrath says, “so we can when the snow has all melted and the mountain comes to life in the warmer months.”
Starting with the Forest Flyer in Lionshead. Just as Disneyland relies on legend to elevate a ride on Big Thunder Mountain from an average stomach-churning roller coaster into a “race through a haunted gold-mining town aboard a rollicking runaway mine train,” Vail Resorts is promoting its Forest Flyer as not just another ski-hill coaster but “an alpine adventure” that “awakens the senses” as “through each rounded corner, the Mountain unfolds in a blur of trees, rocks and wildlife.”
Similarly, Game Creek Bowl’s new thrill ride, installed at the end of last summer by Grand Junction’s Bonsai Design, isn’t just another zip line but a “canopy tour” where guests soar 270 feet above the grassy runs as they traverse 10,000 feet of cable, strung between seven stations, and a vertiginous aerial footbridge swaying nearly three stories off the ground. Over two-and-a-half hours, guides provide short adrenaline breaks by lecturing about topographical features, weather, plants, and animal life, telling the ecological story of Vail Mountain.
“Through working at Disney for 20 years, I came to realize that it’s the emotional connection guests have with the Disney stories and characters that makes their theme park experience so memorable,” Vollrath says. “What I’m trying to achieve through Epic Discovery is to create a renewed connection and spark a sense of wonder in guests toward the mountains, the wildlife, and the environment.
“Sometimes this can be in a big way while navigating an aerial challenge course, or in a small way along a hiking trail as guests have a hands-on interpretive experience learning about the black bear’s sense of smell or the balance of the bighorn sheep.”
For an alternate understanding of the narrative Vollrath is spinning, and a foreshadowing of Epic Discovery, one needs to read between the lines. Or pick up an old newspaper.
“When the effects of climate change really show up, no one will care about skiing at Aspen and Vail,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz famously wrote in an op-ed piece in the Denver Post five years ago. “They will be rightly focused on the wildlife, natural habitat and people of our planet.”
Just like the parables augmenting Epic Discovery, which represents an enormous investment for Vail Resorts—and possibly a hedge against a warmer future, when throngs converge on the valley, but winter takes a vacation.