Family Fun? Whatever


There was a time when I’d have to tear myself away from her, my eldest daughter. There she’d be, nose smooshed against the ski-school daycare window, tears in her eyes, beseeching me to come back and bring her along.

How times change. Take that same adorable child-same golden hair, same sparkling eyes-and fast-forward to age 14. There are still plenty of tears and beseeching on ski mornings, but now it’s to get the heck away from me.

There lies the dilemma of planning the perfect family ski vacation with teenagers on board: finding a way to share the sport you love with the children you love, but giving them the space to make it their own thing. World peace might be simpler.

The good news is that resorts feel your pain. Having tried (and failed miserably at times) to create on-hill programs that keep teens busy, happy and safe on family ski trips, resorts are now creating realistic teen programs based on what teens themselves have told them they want. While we still might be a long way from achieving world peace, peace in the slopeside condo may be on the horizon.

Smugglers’ Notch, Vt., renowned for family ski vacations, has long been looking for the right way to please teens. “We realized over the past couple of years that you can no longer glob 13- to 17-year-olds into one group,” says resort spokeswoman Barbara Thompke. “We’ve also realized you can’t ignore 11- to 12-year-olds, because in this day, they’re essentially teenagers, too.” So what was a resort to do? The answer, suddenly, seemed simple.

“A year ago we started a program where we actually asked teens for their opinions on what they wanted,” Thompke says. From that information, Smugglers’ developed new teen ski groups: the Notch Squad, for 11- to 14-year-olds, and Explorers, for 15- to 17-year-olds. Each program is more like a teen skier hangout that roves the cool parts of the mountain than a traditional all-day lesson. And to break that unedgeable teenage ice, they hold a “Snow Toys” day for the 15- to 17-year-olds each week. The teens can play on snow bikes, boards, snowshoes, whatever. The idea is to get the kids together in order to form friendships that take them through a week’s vacation.

“If you can get them to come the first day, when everyone is new, it’s much better,” Thompke says. “Day 1 puts everyone on equal footing, and they seem to buddy up pretty fast after that.”

At Vail, Colo., the teen issue has been batted about for years, as well. “It’s very, very difficult to get it right,” says Susie Tjossem, vice president of sports and recreation at Vail. “Teens don’t like to be pushed into things they don’t want to do. And I’ll be honest with you, we don’t have the magic ingredients to make the perfect program.”

What Vail does have is knowledge of what has and hasn’t worked in the past. Vail found that traditional teen ski school was simply a washout. Teens found it to be too much like school, too early in the morning and too rigid, Tjossem says. “They just don’t want to be forced into something they cannot check out first.”

What Vail has found to be successful is creating a simple shuttle system that allows non-chaperoned teens to travel safely about-one that parents trust. The resort also sponsors weekly “Street Parties” in the village-events with live music and other goings-on. Kids can join in or just hang out on the fringes. On the mountain, Vail has created Adventure Ridge, a snow-sports-central, with its signature yurt for kids to hang out in and play around without parents along. It’s a place where they can feel independent while they are actually closely monitored. “People in this industry have lost hundreds of thousands of dollars opening teen centers that have failed. It really has to be a place they can hang out if they want, but it’s not an obligation,” Tjossem says.

Family psychologist Chloe Winterson of Boston thinks she knows why. “When you head out on a ski vacation as a family, there are often two completely difrent agendas. Mom and Dad want to be with and ski with the kids, yet have their own fun. The kids, particularly the teens, are visualizing discovering a whole new place and all new people without parents watching their every move. To please everyone, you’ve got to find a middle ground.”

Her advice? “Plan things out to give the teen some kind of freedom. You can’t just set them off alone in a big ski town, but you can let them go into the town at night with the kid they met on the chairlift-after you’ve been to town with them and seen how the shuttle system works and where things are. “And make it clear you want to ski a few runs each day together with your teen.” It might surprise them to find out how much fun it is to do a tree run with Mom. Small requirements are fine. After all, it is a family vacation.”

At Aspen, Colo., families are finding just that to be true. Resort spokeswoman Rose Abello says the town’s shuttles, which are free and easy to use, give teens freedom and parents a sense of safety. And the variety of terrain, from the kick-butt bumps of Ajax to the steeps of Highlands to the cruisers of Snowmass, gives teens a sense of setting out to explore something new.

Still, Abello admits, Aspen had to work out kinks in its teen programs. “We learned firsthand what doesn’t work,” she says. “Rigid, structured, inflexible programs just don’t work.” Nor do teens appreciate being lumped into one “teen group,” she says. Aspen now groups them “by age, skill and personality.” This means that small groups of teens with similar skill levels and learning/playing styles find themselves together.

Aspen has also thrown an extra bonus into its programs,introducing the Teen Extreme Camp last year. In it, highly skilled teens can learn tricks from the likes of Chris Davenport and Tyler Williams, who show up at the camps on specified days over the year. “It’s extreme but supervised,” Abello says.

And what about the yurt-the now ubiquitous teen central at resorts across the nation? In Aspen’s, La-Z-Boys, music and munchies bring them in. But at Stratton Mountain, Vt., that notion’s been taken up a notch. As a result, teens aren’t just hanging together, they’re hanging with everyone.

At the top of Stratton’s Terrain Park on Sundance, the resort installed a vintage diner three years ago, moved from a nearby town. It serves as a hangout for people watching and using the park. And while it was intended as a hangout “for boarders, who tend to be teens,” Stratton’s Carrie Wuverski says it has become more than that. “It’s fun because everyone in there has a common interest in boarding or terrain parks. So you stop in and you see teens actually conversing with an old gray-haired guy, and they are actually communicating. If the same two people sat next to one another on a bus, they’d never talk. But here, they find out they have a link; they have something in common.” It also transcends the usual, she says-something teens like. “We tried the teen-club thing, and for the most part, they think it’s lame. What works is creating an interesting location and then just leaving it alone.”

Still, Wuverski and the others agree, it’s tough to keep a teen completely happy on vacation. The real answer lies less in resort programs and more in your family relationship. Her advice? “Bring a friend. Even if you have to pay, I’d say it’s worth it. Look at it this way: Once it was the nanny you had to pay for. Now it’s the friend. Either way, you’re making it fun for everyone.”

I know that’s true, and last summer, we made a concerted effort to befriend other teens who ski as well as my daughter does. I’ll let her bring a friend sometimes, but I’m still going to insist that some ski days be just hers and mine. I think back to a weekday powder morning at Steamboat Springs, Colo., two years ago, when my daughter and I arrived at the top of Morningside Park to find it deserted. She led, diving into the trees, carving and whooping. I followed, then at one point rushed ahead, finding a fun line that she picked up. We didn’t stop until we hit bottom, red-faced and winded. I asked what she thought.

“That was sick,” she said.

“Sick?” I answered, appalled. “That was one of the best runs I’ve ever had! How spoiled are you?”

“Aaahh, Mom,” she said. “Sick means good. Don’t you know anything?”

Yes, we’ll be bringing that friend along next time. If nothing else, maybe she can translate.n at one point rushed ahead, finding a fun line that she picked up. We didn’t stop until we hit bottom, red-faced and winded. I asked what she thought.

“That was sick,” she said.

“Sick?” I answered, appalled. “That was one of the best runs I’ve ever had! How spoiled are you?”

“Aaahh, Mom,” she said. “Sick means good. Don’t you know anything?”

Yes, we’ll be bringing that friend along next time. If nothing else, maybe she can translate.