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Ski areas’ new-season improvements designed to form lasting bonds

Ski areas preparing to open for 2010-11 are making all sorts of improvements in the hope of making customers happy and preventing them from visiting competing resorts.

But only Alpine Meadows is using powerful magnets that literally keep its most treasured customers — the little ones — in place.

The Lake Tahoe-area resort has affixed large, round magnets to the backs of each chair on two of its lifts servicing beginner terrain. Children who wear specialized vests cling securely to chairs until they’ve reached the unloading area, whereupon the magnets automatically deactivate and enable them to stand and ride off.

Alpine Meadows says it’s the first resort in North America to implement technology, from a French company called Magnestick, that has been used in Europe for three years.

“I keep saying this, but the beauty really is in its simplicity,” said Rachael Woods, a spokeswoman for the resort. “We’ll be interviewing parents and the children to see how they like it.”

Vests will be provided free of charge to kids enrolled in lessons programs, and are available for rent to the general public. Alpine Meadows last year became the first resort in the United States to offer small GPS tracking units so parents can keep track of the precise whereabouts of their children.

Below is a sampling of improvements making headlines elsewhere in ski country:

Kirkwood Mountain Resort, also in the Lake Tahoe area, has opened a zip-line system to serve as an alternative to skiing and snowboarding. It carries riders from platform to platform, 90 feet above the ski and snowboard runs. There’s no age limit but riders must weigh between 85-275 pounds.

The Canyons Resort in Utah has added an orange-bubbled, high-speed chairlift with heated seats, operating from the Grand Summit Hotel. Billed by the resort as “one of the most technologically advanced chairlifts in the world,” it protects guests from extreme weather and affords the same perspective as a pair of goggles. The lift will increase uphill capacity from the base area by 47%.

Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado will boast an Olympics-size superpipe, with 22-foot walls. The “Freeway Superpipe” will debut on national TV when NBC’s Winter Dew Tour visits for its Dec. 16-19 competition. Breckenridge also adds a high-speed roller coaster, as an alternative to skiing and boarding, called the Gold Runner.

Aspen/Snowmass in Colorado is adding a beginner’s halfpipe, with walls measuring only 12 feet. It’ll be located at Snowmass and compliments an 18-foot pipe already at Snowmass, and a 22-foot pipe at Aspen’s Buttermilk Mountain, site of the annual Winter X Games.

Crystal Mountain in Washington State is nearing completion of an eight-passenger gondola, which boasts a vertical rise of 2,456 feet. The gondola, which is scheduled to open Dec. 10, will reach the summit in just under 10 minutes, or about half the time of the resort’s current two-chairlift system.

Squaw Valley USA in the Lake Tahoe area will open a mini-terrain park complete with a fort, jumps and whoopty-doos. Kids can also pick up a mountain map to adventure, which leads them to “fun facts about the mountain’s animals, history and natural habitat,” the website says.

Killington in Vermont has replaced the Skye Peak Quad with the faster and repositioned Skye Peak Express, which will reduce the travel time from the base area to the upper terrain from nearly 14 minutes to about five minutes, and enhance access to the resort’s terrain parks and free-skiing and snowboarding trails.

The Summit at Snoqualmie in Washington State is reopening 65 acres of terrain that had been closed for 20 years. The “Summit East” expansion will be serviced by two chairs that will allow overall access to 150 acres of terrain, from beginner to advanced.

— Lastly, Jackson Hole in Wyoming and Mammoth Lakes in California’s remote Eastern Sierra region have announced new direct flights. Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is now reachable via daily direct flights from Los Angeles, via United. Mammoth Lakes and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area are accessible via direct flights from San Francisco, San Jose and Los Angeles, via United and Horizon Air. Mammoth for years had been reachable only by automobile after a five-hour drive from its closest big city, Los Angeles. Many regulars wish that were still the case.

Editor’s note: This is only a sampling and we apologize for any glaring omissions.

— Images courtesy of Alpine Meadows (top two), The Canyons Resort (third photo) and Mammoth Mountain Ski Area.