Learning to ride the rail Snowmass style.

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Media Services

Peppermint S’mores, ice cream sundaes or bright turquoise gummi butterflies?

Welcome to apres ski — family style — at the spanking new Base Village at Snowmass (www.aspensnowmass.com), by far the largest of Aspen’s four mountains and designated family snow sports central, thanks in part to its stellar Treehouse Adventure Center, which serves more than 40,000 kids annually and offers everything from day care, to skiing and snowboard lessons for youngsters to evening movies. This is the first ski school I’ve seen with its own climbing room for preschoolers and other rooms with crawl-through “fox dens” and “bear caves,” a stage for musicians in the morning and, in the afternoons, a place for kids to stage their own puppet shows.

“I know when I leave them they’ll have a great day,” said Emily Hubbard, here from Naperville, Ill., with her husband and five kids. She adds that she and her husband were especially appreciative of the extra care given their diabetic daughter. The family hasn’t even bothered to venture into Aspen, only a free shuttle bus ride down the road. “Everything we need is here,” Jason Hubbard said.

Sitting around strategically placed fire pits at the new Base Village, parents can nurse a beer or a glass of wine or listen to music in the sunshine while kids take their pick from the S’mores menu at the well-priced restaurant JUNK (they love the recycled forks and spoons hanging from the ceiling) or choose from 100 kinds of candy (ever see gummi brains?) or 250 flavors of homemade ice cream (the vanilla swirled with cake and brownie batter are especially popular) that rotate daily at The Sweet Life next door. “It’s about feeling good and having a good time with your family,” explains Jen Hayes, who opened The Sweet Life with her partner earlier this season. “We wanted to offer good food and a good time that wasn’t too expensive.”

That’s especially appreciated this season when families in ski country — even here in tony Aspen and a few hours away at Vail’s Beaver Creek Resort (www.BeaverCreek.com), known for its kid-friendly service, first-rate learning terrain and country club atmosphere — are watching what they spend on vacation more carefully.

Sneaky’s Tavern, foreground, and The Sweet Life at Snowmass Base Village (click image to enlarge)To avoid pricy lunches on the mountain at Beaver Creek, for example, Jen Zilenziger said her family, who used credit card points for their flight from New Jersey, opted for a big breakfast at the hotel, the new Westin Riverfront Resort (www.riverfrontresortandspa.com) where they also used those points to help defray costs and limited their shopping to inexpensive souvenirs rather than pricy ski sweaters.

Riding up the lift at Snowmass on a gloriously sunny day, Dr. Mike Maxwell bragged about how he managed a four-day ski trip with his two teenage sons for under $1,000: Instead of flying in from Phoenix, they drove and stayed as cheaply as they could, opting for a hostel in Glenwood Springs (www.hostelcolorado.com) about 40 minutes from Snowmass. “It was an adventure to do this together,” he said.

Parents splurge on giant lollipops or S’mores for the kids in the Snowmass Base Village but opt for spaghetti in the condo rather than restaurants. “We’re eating in every night,” said Mary Dehnert, from North Carolina, adding she’s glad her stepfather is shopping and cooking for the extended family group.

They also cut back on the kids’ lessons and private instructors — as much as 15 percent this year — says Aspen Snowmass Children’s Director Sue Way. Mary Anne Cooke, from Lancaster, Pa., bypassed ski school entirely this year for her three kids and was glad her 6 year old could still ski free — a significant savings.

To save money, some families fly into Denver instead of the closer mountain airports, stay for fewer days and bunk with friends or relatives when they can. Many choose to spend a day off the mountain, avoiding lift tickets that can run several hundred dollars a day, and visit instead the resident Golden Eagle at the free Aspen Center for Environmental Studies (check out the naturalist-led snowshoe tours www.aspennature.org) or the huge Aspen Recreation Center (www.aspenrecreation.com) with its waterslide, climbing wall and skating rink.

“My kids get as excited going there as to the mountain,” said Brooke Peterson, who grew up here, though she now lives near San Francisco. Her 4- and 7-year-old sons even think riding the free buses that connect the four Aspen Mountains to the town is an adventure. “They hop on and feel so grown up,” she said, “and I don’t have to lug any booster seats.”

In many cases, a ski trip will be a family’s only big vacation this year. “At home we’re all going in different directions,” said Melissa Berman, a mom of three from suburban New York. “This is one thing we can all do together.”

The good news is the snow is great and your kids will get lots of personal attention in small ski school classes — our 4 year old had only one other child in her class — and you’ll have some slopes virtually to yourselves. Even better, there have never been as many good deals for families in March, especially for last-minute travelers and those who want to take advantage of the excellent snow and come late season (www.aspensnowmass.com/deals) or (www.vailonsale.net). Aspen’s The Perfect Storm Package offers a free night, free lift tickets and extra discounts on lunches and shopping (www.stayaspensnowmass.com/perfectstorm) and the new Hayden Lodge and Capitol Peak Lodges (www.snowmassliving.com) right at the Snowmass Base Village offer a Skiing Stimulus Package that gives you 40 percent off rack rate and as much as 75 percent off in April. (Ask for the skiing stimulus.)

If you’ve got teens and want to be in Aspen with its shopping and nightlife, you can’t go wrong with the newly renovated Limelight Lodge (www.limelightlodge.com). The Limelight has been in the same family for a half-century and you can’t beat the buy-four-nights-pay-for-three deal that includes breakfasts and après ski drinks and snacks. (The fresh baked cookies are great, too!)

“In this economy, you can’t just stay home and join the pity party,” said Scott Phillips who had come to Beaver Creek for a long weekend with a gaggle of kids and friends from Kansas City. “You’ve got to get out and have some fun.”