I don’t want to release this story. I don’t want to put it out there. I want to own the odds that next year I can score tickets on the Winter Park Express for my near family without finding tickets sold out as in 2015, the 75th anniversary when all 450 tickets for one special day in March sold out in less than 10 hours. I booked tickets in September 2016 for January (4+ months ahead of the ski date) for my nearly 3-year-old grandson and myself.
The train got its start in 1940 chugging up the hill 56 miles to Winter Park through 31 tunnels ranging from 78 feet to the incredible 6.2-mile long Moffat Tunnel. Thirty-something years ago, I took my two youngsters on the ski train, departing the gloomy Union Station on an inordinately cold day. Tickets then like now were non-refundable. So we layered up and spent the bulk of our Winter Park adventure in the lodge drinking hot chocolate. Because of the train, it was still a blast.
Why the train ceased its run in 2009 after 69 consecutive years was a culmination of factors that hardly seem to matter today. Colorado survived that economic crash to become the second-fastest growing state in the U.S. welcoming 100,986 new residents between 2014 and 2015. Employment in Metro Denver increased 3.2 percent between November 2015 and 2016 adding 50,400 jobs. The unemployment rate decreased in November to 2.6 percent, the lowest rate since December 2000. Residential building permits increased in November compared to the prior year with 22.2 percent more building permits issued. Even commercial real estate report 7.4 million square feet built out in 2016, an increase of 45.4 percent over 2015.
And then there’s the traffic on I-70 to consider.
The weather cooperated the last weekend in January, so avalanches and snowplows were off the table, ‘er highway. Still, speeds between 1 and 6 p.m. Sunday evening slowed to 2 hours and 18 minutes to travel from Frisco to C-470. Add in-city drive time to the mix and that’s more than 3 hours down the hill. Friends with condos in Copper Mountain report that the return trip has taken up to 6 hours, the very reason they’ve switched to driving home at dawn on a Monday.
The train takes less than 2 hours.
Since 2002, Winter Park Ski Resort has been leased from the City of Denver to Intrawest, once the dominant player in the ski industry. Intrawest owns Blue Mountain and Mt. Tremblant in Canada, Stratton Mountain Resort in Vermont, Snowshoe/Silver Creek in West Virginia and Steamboat, also in Colorado. Intrawest manages properties in Hawaii, Mexico, and owns and manages a timeshare operation too.
Intrawest is keenly aware of the decreasing numbers of skiers nationwide since the 1970s. Forbes magazine reports that 40 years ago approximately 5.5% of the U.S. population skied. That number has dropped to 4%, requiring ski areas to be hyper-sensitive to the preferences of the nearly 80 million Millennials’, 25% of the U.S. population. Micah Solomon in Forbes.com writes that Millennials demand self-service, algorithmically and crowdsourced customer service options. Paradoxically, they also crave a true, authentic, personalized experience as customers. To that end, the California Zephyr concierge team functions like Amazon’s Alexia. They’ve got answers and resort maps, distributing both on the way up the hill, plus they have experience skiing the resort. (And they won’t order you a dollhouse or cookies.)
In other ways too, the train is ideal for Millennials choosing not to own a car. The Downtown Denver Partnership reports that the 24 to 35-year olds that make up the new workforce prefer to live in a core city that offers walkability, bike lane systems and mass transit, amenities Denver has focused on developing in the last few years.
My plan for Q1 2018: book a weekend family getaway at Winter Park Resort. Our pool of shared and married DNA will pile on the train with skis, boots and babies. We tuck into a glam rental at the resort where we can cook in or eat out. We’ll stroll in the moonlight warming our hands at one of the several gas-fueled fire pits along the resort walkways. There’s a Starbucks for my coffee routine and top-of-line retailers, bars, and a spa. We will connect with each other and reconnect with what matters most.
Guilt makes me willing to give up the details. Tickets for this season went on sale August 30th.
First one to the website wins in August 2017 when tickets for 2018 go on sale!
SKI TRAIN HIGHLIGHTS
Tips to make your train trip with children in tow most successful.
Pre-boarding reading for 2+ year olds: Thomas the Tank Engine in The Railway Series, books by the Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his Christopher. When passing by the unmoving engines in the train yard on our way out of Union Station, my grandson referred to them as “sad.” I had to call on friends with younger children to get the low-down on The Sad Story of Henry.
While the view out the observatory deck windows is enchanting to any passenger it’s mesmerizing to a youngster. My view from the aisle seat was of my grandson’s head all the way up to the resort and all the way back to Denver was the back of his head as he scanned the view from the window. I didn’t know the pleated curtains on the train windows could be moved so many times on a single trip without breaking.
If you’re not traveling with a 3-year-old you can doze off in these generous-sized coach seats. Pull up the footrest and recline.
Bathroom breaks. Yes, there is a bathroom on board. It’s large. And clean. Enuf said.
Snacks and trash. Bring your own snacks and refreshments to enjoy on the journey. The Noosa brand yogurt reps were on the train platform passing out samples to passengers for the 7 a.m. departure. I’m a convert. The concierge team comes by at the end of the trip to gather any trash travelers might have accumulated up and down the hill.
How much can you carry? Preload your skis and poles by simply handing them to the crew in the car with ski racks. Climb a narrow set of stairs to the observatory deck where you have the option to put your ski boots or luggage in storage. There is also overhead storage above your seat. Personally, I couldn’t have carried as much luggage as was the space offered, nor would I want to.
Best of all, you can keep your personal belongings in the train during the day. That leaves you the option to leave your street boots and change of clothes for the return. Because the train is locked down during the day, pack to ski light so that you’re not weighted down with unnecessary stuff.
Taking one child or more skiing? The best tip we can offer is to buy a small plastic sled. It’s the most ingenious way to pull your skis, boots and even a toddler to the ski hill. Winter park allows skiers to make use of red wooden wagons at the base of the mountain to pull children and skis. But I would have paid a day’s wage to have a plastic sled with me.
Make your own rules. Go with the flow. Take a break from the rigors of skiing and put your feet up. Otto and I chose Starbucks for our morning pit stop. It was there that I made a new rule: You can only eat one cookie as big as your face each day. He’s in the Why Phase of life and so he asked. Why? Because I said so.
Winter Park offers free skiing to children on Sorenson Park, one in the same area where the ski instructors hold ski school training for kids 3 years and up. The area includes a Magic Carpet, a mechanical rubber mat that transports young skiers (and their charge) to the top of the gently sloped ski run. There’s also a tow rope as your little skier becomes more advanced.
Ski and snowboard lessons are discounted when purchased in advance. Lessons start at $179 for 6 hours of instruction. Lunch is included; helmet, ski and boot rental is not.
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