Afton Alps fall fair offers gear, rides, more

Today I visited the Afton Alps fall swap and fair, which runs through tomorrow. If you did not pay a visit to Afton last season, it’s a good time to see what $10 million in spending will do. Most of that money went into snowmaking, but you will see changes in the physical plant as well, with some upgrades to the Highland chalet, the removal of the ticket booths, and now, a newly paved road down to the Alps chalet.

With Vail Resorts owning both Afton Alps and local retailer Hoigards, you’ll find plenty of opportunities to buy new stuff this year at discounted prices. (There’s even some “new” Nordic skis for sale, though I didn’t see any bindings.) You can also look into a season pass, ski racing, and lessons, as well as talk with the owner of Flashbacks, a new company that can edit your GoPro videos. Kids can jump in a bouncy house, look for candy in the hay, and paint pumpkins.

If you wandered a bit off the beaten path, you may have noticed some ski-evacuation training taking place at Nancy’s Nursery. It’s one of those skills that you hope never have to be used.

rsz_evac1

Don’t forget that Wild Mountain and Trollhaugen are also having open houses this weekend.

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Afton Alps: The first Christmas break under Vail ownership

Vail Resorts made news earlier this year when it purchased two resorts in the Midwest, including Afton Alps. It stated its intention to spend $10 million renovating Afton, and over the summer, announced various changes, including a new fleet of snowguns, expansions to the largest terrain park, and upgrades to some buildings.

So now that we’re well into the season, what has changed? First up, you’ll see new signs throughout the property, including those announcing your arrival as you drive past the golf course that serves as the entry point. A few old signs remain throughout the property, but expect them to be phased out. So expect more orange and brown in the months to come.

Highland sign

The other difference you’ll see when you first arrive is that there are no ticket booths. That pushes the queues out of cars and into buildings, though in some cases new technology will eliminate the need to stop anywhere for a ticket.

Freestyle terrain: More is more

Given the reputation that Vail has for its terrain parks at Breckenridge, it’s no surprise that parks have gotten a boost under the new management. The company has made Dee’s Dive, a small but steeper slope near what was already the largest park at Afton (Carol’s Crib), into the home of three enormous jumps. (There are still two lanes on either side of the jumps, but non-jumpers would do just fine to ignore Dee’s.)

There used to be a tubing hill nestled between a beginner area (Meadows) and Carol’s. Over the summer, though, the tubing hill was bulldozed and incorporated into an enlarged park. In addition to getting bigger, the park gained two rope tows. In addition to this park, by the way, you’ll find man-made features scattered Afton. The Highlands, for example, continues to have a beginning park between chair 14 and 15.

While the tubing lanes and conveyor belt are gone, the tubing chalet remains, though modified. It has been given a covered entrance and incorporated into a mini-base area called the Landing Zone, or LZ. The old tables have been replaced by more modern ones, as well as six oversized stuffed pillows. Think: bean bag chairs for jibbers. A new menu adds beer and wine, and a flat-screen TV in the chalet shows action sports, even as music booms over a new sound system. Unfortunately, the water in the pitcher of free water has a strong iron taste.

Near the chalet is a yurt, new for this season. It is the first yurt at Twin Cities ski areas, though the concept has been used by ski resorts in other parts of the country. It’s hard to tell at this point what the yurt will be used for–will it be simply for sitting, or will it be used to sell drinks, for example–as Vail is still rolling out changes.

Also by the chalet was a food truck, selling burritos. At least that’s what the signs on it said. It was closed when I visited, though it was a very busy day.

Restrooms

In the past, I’ve nicked Afton for the fact that the Highlands chalet had cotton-roll towels. Those are no more; they have been replaced by paper-towel dispensers. The restroom could stand some partitions between the urinals (standard practice these days), but moving to paper towels is a big improvement.

The restroom in the Meadows chalet, which houses a ski/ride school, was also improved. It had been primitive, with rough concrete floors and walls, and decrepit wood. But the restroom has been given an overhaul, with a new ceramic tile floor and walls, not to mention a granite (or faux granite) countertop.

The other restrooms on the property appear to be unchanged, including those at the former tubing chalet. If the LZ concept takes off, the existing men’s restroom–one stall, one urinal, one sink–may become too small. Curiously, as of this writing, the web page about the LZ says “The LZ building is open for lift tickets, and food/beverage service. No restrooms, please use the restrooms in the Alps or Meadows.”

Music

Satellite music channels are now piped into the large room of the Highlands chalet. It was fairly loud when I was there, but it may get drowned out later in the day as the room fills up. The large terrain park has speakers playing music, though I could barely hear it when outside it, even while riding in Mickey’s Meadow, a slope that is on the skier’s left of the park.

Music also plays in the entire LZ, including the chalet, the yurt, and the space between and in front of them. Curiously, the bar at the Highlands chalet was music-free. Whether the addition of music is a bug or a feature is a personal preference.

Food and drink

Afton says that it has upgraded the food service. Since I usually bring my own lunch, it’s hard for me to evaluate this claim. But the space at the Highlands chalet has been spiffed up a bit. Pasta will be added to the usual burger fare, but not yet. The bar area of the Highlands chalet–now “The Crest Mountain Grill”–has been changed, too, and for the better. The dark tables have been replaced by tables with a lighter tone. There are new chairs with a brushed metal design, to match the new bar. The small loft has been removed entirely, and the two-story windows give the room a more open feel. If you don’t see the familiar water pitcher on the bar, don’t fret: It’s been replaced by a fancier water dispenser that is on the condiment table. As for the rest of the Highlands chalet, the old bank of rental lockers, which were showing their age, are gone, replaced by a ticket cart. A smaller number of lockers now sit just outside the restrooms. The side of the building that faces the parking lot has been given a new, wooden exterior.

The Alpine chalet, meanwhile, awaits the construction of a food service area. The parts in this infrequently used building were scattered apart when I was there.  The Meadows chalet, meanwhile, has had a few new items added to its menu, but the dining area has received no noteworthy changes. It’s still a sea of concrete.

The food service area of the Alps chalet received a major overhaul a few years ago, though the dining area remains as it was: Concrete floors downstairs and carpeted floors upstairs. Paul’s Pub, the bar in the Alps Chalet, was spiffed up a few years ago, and upgraded some more over the summer. An interior wall has been removed, which opens up the pub. A new gas fireplace invites patrons to snatch up one of the nearby lounge chairs. And if you belly up to the bar, you’ll find a more shiny, metallic, and open space.

Ticketing

Ticketing has been a sore point for Afton, particularly on very busy days. There was no way to separate season pass holders from day-ticket buyers; all cars would line up at ticket booths, either at the base (near the Alps chalet) or the top (near the Highlands chalet). New technologies promise a quicker experience. During the Christmas week, when I visited, the performance sometimes fell short of the promise, with comments on Afton’s Facebook page reporting waits of 45 minutes to one hour (!) to obtain lift tickets.

On the other hand, I drove into the parking lot of the Highlands chalet, walked into the building, and found a new, portable ticketing cart. I had to wait behind all of three people, at 10:00 a.m. A man behind me, though, said he had come from the Alps chalet, where the queue was 45 minutes.

What was the problem? It could be the crush of traffic, a snafu in the new system, or something else. I will say this: I have never seen Afton as busy as it was that day. There was not a table to be found when I took my lunch (late) in the Alps chalet, and when I left at 3:00 p.m., there were perhaps a dozen free parking places on the whole property. It’s possible that getting people signed up for the preferred program–a loyalty program–helped to gum up the works. The preferred program, by the way, may save people time as the season goes on. People who don’t have a season pass can have electronic scanners on the slopes automatically debit a credit card, letting them bypass the ticket office.

Paper tickets are a thing of the pass. I used an Epic Day pass, a piece of plastic that resembles a debit or credit card. It lets skiers and riders use Vail’s in-house version of Alpine Replay or Map My Ride. It uses the new RFID scanners that are installed at each lift. Occasionally, I saw an employee checking people for lift cards by using a hand-held scanner. This technology has been used by western resorts for decades, but Afton is the first resort to use it within the Twin Cities.

Ski and ride school

The retail counter of the ski and ride school at the Meadows chalet has been improved with some new counters, and a coat of the new corporate orange/yellow paint. As is the case with other changes on site, the effect is to brighten up the space. On the other hand, the equipment rental space appears to be unchanged.

There are more changes in store for Afton Alps and its customers, and it will be fascinating to see how they pan out. Stay here for more updates, and leave a comment if you have any thoughts to share on Afton in the age of Vail.

(See the Afton Alps December 2013 photo gallery for more.)