Los Angeles. The latitude is unlikely and the image--palm trees and sand--doesn't fit, but if your kids want to learn to snow ski, you're in the right place at the right season.
Ski resorts in the San Bernardino and San Gabriel mountains north of Los Angeles are home to several busy and successful children's learn-to-ski programs. But things have changed since the days when ski instructors' skills seemed to be measured in mind-numbing decibels: "Keep those skis parallel!" "Weight on your inside edges!" "Bend your knees!"
Today, defeating boredom--public enemy No. 1 in any classroom--is the answer to keeping kids happy and motivated during long hours on the snow, says Celia Ralph, director of Snow Summit's Little Bear Ski School at Big Bear Lake.
"Let's face it," says Ralph, who--with a 5- and a 6-year-old at home--knows from experience, "six hours on skis is a heck of a long day for anybody, and especially for kids. We try to combine lessons with obstacle courses and races, and give prizes and balloons."
For the kids, of course, anything goes. Doing belly flops is at least as much fun as practicing wedge turns--which is why they don't practice them, says Sandie Immegart, director of Bear Mountain Ski Resort's Junior Ski School, also in Big Bear.
Instead, the 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds in the Super Cub Program in the Junior Ski School play a game called "making pieces of pizza pie." Big pieces, then little pieces and then big ones again.
And there are other games: "hitting the emergency brake" (plopping down on their bottoms), "red light, green light" (stops and starts), and "baby ducks" (trailing single-file behind Mama or Papa Duck).
"Children don't care whether or not they can sidestep up the hill faster than someone else," says Robin Baird, manager of the Ski Wee Program at Snow Valley Ski Resort near Running Springs. "They care whether they're having fun walking sideways like a crab."
The games, says Baird, look deceptively easy and almost too much fun. But they teach fundamental ski skills so quickly and painlessly that most youngsters are up on their feet in minutes, making turns in an hour and skiing down gentle slopes in a morning.
Another concern is that when children are miserable or cold, they're not going to remember skiing as a positive experience. So at Snow Summit, if children are tired and whining, they can go into the resort's child care center--the Little Bear Care Center--for hot chocolate and coloring books.
The center, a licensed facility for 67 children ages 6 months to 4 years, has its own mini-ski program: one-hour lessons before and after lunch for 3 1/2- to 4-year-olds. These lessons familiarize kids with boots and poles and make a game of the felt map of the mountain's runs (where Mommy and Daddy are). The children also go out on the snow to practice sliding.
At Bear Mountain, says Immegart, unhappy kids can go inside The Tent to play with toys and watch videos.
On weekend days, as many as 200 children enroll at Snow Summit and Bear Mountain, and 100 at Snow Valley and Mountain High Ski Area near Wrightwood. The children are grouped by strength and skill level, then divided into classes of 10 or fewer.
Snow Valley Ski Resort is affiliated with the Ski Wee Program, a learn-to-ski method developed by the Professional Ski Instructors of America and taught nationwide.
Ski Wee, based on specific skill development at five "stations," allows children to move easily from lessons at one resort to lessons at another. Ski Wee has been so successful that most ski resorts--including local ones--base their children's ski schools on it.
Mountain High Ski Area's Buckaroo Program, for instance, has adopted the "station" method because it allows children to progress at their own pace.
"In the old days, children were thought of as sort of shrunken adults who learned the same way adults do," says Cynthia Heaton, Mountain High's Ski School director. Not anymore.
Now, programs are "child-centered," allowing children to decide how fast they want to learn and how long they want to spend at a station. No longer are they skiing to suit parent--and teacher--expectations.
Skiing With Children * Dress children in layered tops that can be taken off as the weather warms.
* Hats, gloves, sunglasses and sunscreen are essential.
* To save time, rent skis and boots near home.
* According to experts, children under 4 don't have the strength, coordination or stamina to control their skis.
* Children do not ski with poles until they learn how to control legs and upper body.
Resorts for the Littlest Skiers Here's where the young can ski in the L.A. area. With the exception of Bear Mountain Ski Resort, parents should pay at the ticket window and rent skis before checking in. All have a minimum age of 4 or 5 (although 2- and 3-year-olds can take private lessons) and are first-come, first-served.
* Mountain High Ski Area. Buckaroo Program for ages 4-8. Open 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Full day, $35; half-day (1-3 p.m.), $18. Rentals not included. (619) 249-5801.
* Snow Valley Ski Resort. Ski Wee program for ages 5-11. Open 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Full day with rentals, $40; $30 without. Half-day, $35 with rentals; $25 without. (714) 867-2751.
* Bear Mountain Ski Resort. Super Cub Program for ages 4-6. Open 7:30 a.m.-3 p.m. weekends; 8 a.m.-3 p.m. weekdays. Full day, $54 with rentals; $45 without. Half-day, $39 with rentals; $30 without. Pay at the Ski School Tent. (714) 585- 2519.
* Snow Summit Ski Area. Little Bear Ski School for ages 5-7. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Full day, $40; half-day, $25. Rentals not included. (714) 866-5766. The "Combo" program--morning lesson and afternoon child care--is $40. The Little Bear Care Center for ages 6 months to 4 years is $45 full day and $28 half-day for an infant; $35 and $20 for a toddler. (714) 866-5191.