Steamboat downtown

DAY 4 — It’s just after 9 a.m. and the spanking new Kids Vacation Center at Steamboat—it has doubled in size this year—is in full swing. (

The babies and toddlers are playing in the day care area; the littlest skiers aged four to six are alternately eating Goldfish, drinking apple juice and coloring at tables with their groups. The older kids—including the popular teen groups that are run during busy school break weeks—are meeting on the snow.

“This year the kids are back,” says Nelson Wingard, the Steamboat ski school director. Steamboat, with 480 staff in its ski school, is one of the largest in the country. On a busy week like this, roughly 1500 kids will be enrolled in ski school says Wingard.  On busy weeks, there are also special programs designed to let kids remain with the same group for five days, bonding with the kids as well as their instructor.

One hundred instructors are designated just for kids.  It seems that once families discover Steamboat, with direct flights from nine major cities across the country, they return again and again. Wingard said more than 60 per cent of families are repeat customers. “A lot of kids go right through the program as they get older,” he said. That’s one reason the teen program is so successful here.

Instructors return too—95 percent returned this year, Wingard said; 60 percent have been here more than five years.  The instructor who taught me my lesson has been here 17 years, in fact.

“It is our culture that makes us different,” he believes. “We don’t have a secret recipe.  We care about kids.   We treat these kids like they are our kids.”

And they try to make it easy for families—from drop off right at the ski school to adult lessons scheduled to parents can drop their kids off and then be back in time to pick them up at the end of the day. Each child has a special GPS unit that allows supervisors to track them on the mountain; should they stray too far from their instructor, the supervisors are sent an alert and can notify the instructor immediately. Kids love that they can also go online at the end of the ski day, plug in their number and see exactly where they skied—bragging rights for how much vertical they covered.  (Adults can rent these units for $19.95 a day.

Of course families are paying plenty for the privilege–$136 for the preschoolers; $120 day for older kids.  They seem to feel it is money well spent. ”The kids do better without the parents. They take instruction so much better from someone else,” explains Jennifer Karnes, here for her fourth trip with her husband and three sons who range from 16 to two.  If you try to teach them, she said, they get angry and you get aggravated—It’s a bad situation,’ especially on vacation.  The two year-old, she laughs, is only angry that he can’t go to snowboard school too.  “I feel very secure leaving my kids here.”

And she loves that the kids are having an opportunity to do something they could never do at home in the South where there is no snow. ‘It is a whole different culture,” she explains.

One big plus that draws families here: Kids ski free and rent free—one kid per adult who is buying a lift ticket and renting equipment. That can translate into significant savings— nearly $500 for one child’s lifts and equipment for five days.

But that’s not all that draws families here.  “It’s just a nice place. People are very friendly and the kids are progressing well in ski school and there is plenty for us to ski too,” says Steph Hartshorn, here with her husband and two kids from suburban New York. 

“The best vacation ever,” says Jennifer Karnes. “We do things with the kids and without the kids. We get to experience all there is.”