SALT LAKE CITY — Utah ski officials are hoping the “bigger is better” card lures more skiers and snowboarders to their mountains this season after several resorts completed multi-million dollar improvement projects — highlighted by Vail Resort’s merging of two well-known ski areas into one mega resort.
The new Park City Mountain Resort, which now includes the ski area formerly known as the Canyons Resort, opened Saturday. It will offer 7,300 skiable acres and 41 lifts to make it one of the largest in North America.
After purchasing Canyons for $182.5 million last year, Vail spent $50 million to build an eight-person gondola connecting the resorts, upgrade other lifts and build a new restaurant. The new gondola is set to open around mid-December, resort officials say.
The resort will be marketed simply as “Park City,” the same name as the city where it’s located. The National Ski Areas Association doesn’t track the size of U.S. resorts by skiable acres to say for sure which is the biggest, but it says it is certainly among the largest.
At Snowbird, a new 23,000-square-foot restaurant and lodge sitting atop Hidden Peak at 11,000 feet elevation, is set to open. The two-story lodge with large glass windows and deck that offer spectacular views highlights $35 million in upgrades from the resort that sits in the Little Cottonwood canyon east of Salt Lake City.
At Solitude Mountain Resort, skiers will find a new high-speed quad lift, a new run and upgraded restaurants that are part of $7 million in investments from Deer Valley Resort, which purchased Solitude earlier this year. At Deer Valley, $5 million was spent for behind-the-scenes improvements that include better snowmaking and a remodeled restaurant.
The flurry of upgrades marks the largest package of improvements since the late 1990s when Utah resorts geared up for the 2002 Winter Olympics, said Nathan Rafferty, president of industry group Ski Utah.
Vail’s expanding footprint in the Utah mountains has “elevated the game” of all other resorts that knew they couldn’t stand by idly and still compete, Rafferty said.
“There’s anticipation this year that I haven’t seen since the Olympic year,” Rafferty said. “Any one of these upgrades would be a marquee upgrade in one single season.”
Skier visits were down 5 percent last season, mirroring a nationwide drop. Utah officials are hoping the improvements catch people’s attention and that better snow makes for good powder after a season when the snowfall waned after a good start — likely keeping many skiers away.
Even though other Utah resorts must compete with the Park City mega resort, they think Vail’s entry into the market will pay dividends for the entire industry.
“It put us on the map,” said Emily Summers, Deer Valley spokesperson. “For the first time ever, we’re not getting confused with Colorado. Getting people to look at Utah first is a really big deal.”
Park City Mountain Resort is now one of 13 global ski areas people can go to if they buy Vail’s well-known Epic Pass, sold for $809 for adults. An Epic Local Pass that offers access to a smaller list of U.S. resorts and some restrictions is being sold for $619 for adults.
Many of those pass-holders will be skiing in Utah for the first time and trying other resorts, Summers said. Joni Dykstra, spokeswoman for the Alta Lodge that is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year at the foot of Alta Ski Area, agrees.
“People who have never skied in Utah will come to have an experience over at Park City and then realize how close all these others ski areas are,” Dykstra said.
The new combined resort gives skiers a European-type ski experience that hopefully offers a glimpse of the future of Utah resorts, Rafferty said. The gondola built to connect the Park City resorts leaves just two lifts needed to link seven resorts in an ambitious, long-term plan modeled after European ski areas.
“We as Americans are used to going to one lift and bobbing up and down 12 times and find the best powder,” Rafferty said. “With this you can say, ‘Today we’re going to ski from the far left to the far right and take all day to do it and then take the city bus to where we started from.’”