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MLK Weekend Proves Overcrowding Isn’t Necessarily the New Normal at Vail Resorts

Vail Resorts fared better over MLK weekend than the December holidays, but still faces criticism for poor skier experiences.

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If you decided not to venture out to the slopes during what’s typically one of the busiest ski weekends of the year, Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, we don’t blame you. We all saw the headlines and the social media posts over the Christmas and New Year holidays slamming Vail Resorts and other operators for the lack of staffing, minimal terrain, long lift lines, overflowing parking lots, lackluster grooming, and other grievances. 

“It’s not that there are not enough talented people. There is a shortage of people who will get duped into working for $15 an hour. This is about communities running out of cheap labor.”

Posted by The Colorado Sun on Saturday, January 1, 2022

Earlier this year, Vail cut the price of its Epic Pass, bringing the cost of a season pass down to levels not seen in six years. In November, the conglomerate announced they pre-sold 2.1 million Epic Passes and Epic Day tickets—a 76 percent increase over the 2019-20 winter. Unfortunately, poor early-season snowfall across the country hampered efforts to get terrain open, leading to seriously congested bottlenecks at the lift that did spin. Even where snowfall didn’t prevent terrain from opening, the fast-moving Omicron variant wreaked havoc on the already-thin labor force, which finds housing nearly impossible to come by thanks to pandemic-drive mountain town real estate grabs. 

Breckenridge was able to get both Peaks 6 and 10 open by MLK weekend, which eased crowding and helped spread out skiers throughout the five peaks. Photo: Getty Images

The issues weren’t strictly limited to Vail’s resorts, but you wouldn’t know that from Instagram. An account called Epic Lift Lines, which is primarily devoted to showing all of the above at Vail-owned mountains, more than doubled in size since early December. 

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Breckenridge has since opened both Peaks 10 and 6, and Mueller says MLK weekend saw typical holiday crowds around feeder lifts, but the crowds spread around the mountain much more easily after the morning surge.

Vail Resorts reports that skier visits on the season were down slightly in the period ending January 2 to the tune of 1.7 percent from last winter (and down 18.3 percent from the 2019-’20 season). But lodging data provided by Inntopia’s DestiMetrics shows occupancy up 30 percent from December 2019, the last comparison, pre-pandemic. The metrics, from 290 property management companies at 18 western ski resorts, mean it’s possible that skier visits in total were down slightly while numbers on certain days over the holiday break were still higher than normal.

Either way, it appears that skiers fared better over MLK weekend. So maybe the December fiascos were due to a perfect storm of frothing crowds, challenging weather, and COVID, and aren’t the new normal?

“To me, the most noticeable [crowding during Christmas week] was the Falcon Lift at Breck’s Peak 10,” CJ Mueller, a Colorado native who’s been skiing at Breckenridge for nearly 50 years “While Falcon was closed through the holidays, it was noticeably more crowded on Mercury chair. The other noticeable lift line was at the T-Bar, due to Peak 6 not being open.” 

Casey Wiedmer of Ogden, Utah, says the Epic Pass blackout days over MLK weekend made a significant difference in the ski experience at Snowbasin compared to Christmas weekend when he was waiting 30 minutes or longer for the lift. (Epic Pass blackout dates didn’t go into effect there until Dec. 26.) Wiedmer, who has a Snowbasin season pass, said he never waited more than three minutes last weekend. “On Christmas,” he says, “it was, in fact, chaos.”

In New England, Mook Williams says it’s still possible to find places without lift lines on holiday weekends. “You just need to seek smaller places or places that are tough to get to,” he says. “On Sunday and Monday, I didn’t wait more than 10 mins. And Monday was the first major powder day of the season.” The Bay Stater says he doesn’t patronize any of Vail Resorts’ ski areas because of their “dramatic underperformance in many of their mountain operations.”

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For those who do, however, things seem to be looking up as we move deeper into the winter season—and with only one more holiday weekend, Presidents’ Day on February 21, to go.

“Staff is getting healthy and coming back to work,” says John Plack, Senior Communications Manager for Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek. “It’s a very different story than at the beginning of the Christmas holiday season.” 

Perhaps the best indication yet that crowding was greatly improved over the Monday holiday was that @epicliftlines was uncharacteristically silent throughout the weekend. 

“No one ever takes a picture when there’s not a lift line,” says Plack, “but there are lifts without lines, especially at Vail.”