Offering a full menu of outdoor summer activities has become somewhat de rigueur at ski areas over the past decade. But more resorts—and many non-resorts competing for the same summer guests—are adding educational programming to the mix alongside more traditional adventures. This burgeoning brand of summer “edutainment” is filling up hotels and restaurants and proving successful in attracting coveted summer visitors.
While not the first to do so, Vail Resorts has made perhaps the biggest investment in “learn-through-play” programming. It has slated $25 million for development of its Epic Discovery program at three resorts—Vail, Breckenridge, and Heavenly. Epic Discovery, which fully launched this year at Vail and Heavenly and will open next year at Breckenridge, offers zip lines, canopy tours, adventure courses, alpine coasters, tubing, trampolines, educational tours, and other outdoor family adventures.
The Vail Resorts areas are the first on U.S. Forest Service land to have such an extensive network of activities, following passage of the 2011 Ski Area Recreational Opportunity Enhancement Act. And it’s noteworthy that a host of educational components are integral to the experience.
“The idea is that all the elements at Epic Discovery play off each other,” says Hans Vollrath, Vail’s director of non-skiing activities. “It all kind of weaves together from a content perspective.”
More than Adventure
From the early stages, it was vital to Vollrath that education be part of the Epic Discovery mix. A 20-year Disney exec, he worked closely with local and national non-profit groups on educational elements, making sure they were accurate as well as effective.
At both resorts, educational “story stake kiosks” dot expanded walking trail systems. The kiosks display information about local flora, fauna, and wildlife. A series of “animal ability” installations demonstrate sight, vision, stride, strength, and other characteristics of local wildlife. At each resort, 20 different interpretive stations expound on various subjects.
Since developing interpretive content wasn’t in Vail’s wheelhouse, Vollrath tapped other groups to develop fun ways to tell the stories. The Walking Mountains Science Center in Colorado helped develop content for guides and signage at Vail, and the League to Save Lake Tahoe did the same at Heavenly. The Forest Service helped write other content for both areas, as did the Nature Conservancy.
In keeping with the theme, canopy tour guides are trained to dole out interesting facts about trees, animals, weather and nature, making the tour an educational event interspersed with amazing views on and off the zip lines. Vollrath says that ideally, guests will bring questions from the interpretive exhibits with them to the tours, where guides can provide answers and weave it all together from a content perspective.
Of course, adventure takes center stage, and a host of activities opened this year at both areas. At Vail, this includes the 3,400-foot-long Forest Flyer alpine coaster and the Game Creek Aerial Adventure tour, a series of seven zip lines up to 2,700 feet long. At Heavenly, the new Ridge Rider Mountain Coaster overlooks Lake Tahoe before winding down the mountain, and the Skyway tree-based canopy tour offers eight separate zips, aerial bridges, and a rappelling station.
Vail Valley Partnership chief Chris Romer says that though it’s too early to tell, “Epic Discovery has the opportunity to be a game changer for our summer experience.”
Smaller, but Still Effective
Other ski areas are mixing in education on a smaller, but equally effective, scale. For several years now, Bretton Woods, N.H., has offered a three-hour canopy tour that descends more than 1,000 feet of elevation, taking riders across treetop zip lines and a network of platforms high in the trees. Tours take place year-round, and groups of eight are led by a pair of well-informed guides who are trained to insert snippets of information about nature and the environment into the day.
Bretton Woods assistant director of ski operations Alexa Bernotavicz says the course was designed to be interactive and educational, though instead of using interpretive signage, guides are the key element. They’re expected to be knowledgeable on a variety of local topics. “We encourage them to talk about the White Mountain National Forest, natural history, geology, birds, you name it. It all leads to the guests having more of an interactive experience in the trees,” she says.
Many of Bretton Woods’ canopy guides are ski patrollers and ski school instructors, a mature group that Bernotavicz says lends to the program. “Using older guides is key to the education component. More mature guides tend to make the tour more unique.”
Bernotavicz says that customers taking the tour at Bretton Woods tend to be slightly more mature as well, outdoorsy folks who aren’t necessarily adrenaline seekers. “The winter staff seemed to be the perfect fit for that type of personality—high customer service skills, plus first aid experience.”
The guides have a lot of leeway as to what they present. “We thought about having key points, ‘when you get to this tree, talk about this.’ But it began to sound too scripted,” says Bernotavicz. “So we said, ‘just talk about whatever you’re comfortable with,’ which makes each tour unique.” It also helps fuel the tour’s perceived value—which, at $89 to $110, continues to get high marks.
Make Like a Tree
In upstate New York, The Wild Center—a new kind of indoor/outdoor museum experience—offers, literally, a bird’s-eye view of the Adirondack Mountains. It’s become the number-one attraction in the area, and drew 150,000 visitors last year.
The Wild Center opened in 2006 as a non-profit education institution and museum to study and communicate the natural history of the six-million-acre Adirondack Park. It sits on an 81-acre campus at the geographic center of the Adirondacks. The Center uses a unique hands-on approach to help audiences increase their understanding of how natural systems work in the area. Putting people in “close and personal contact with the phenomena of nature” is a core goal.
The Center’s outdoor Wild Walk took more than eight years to imagine and build before it opened in July 2015. “The Wild Walk is designed to be what would happen if you took a museum outdoors and put it in the center of what you were interpreting,” says Tracey Legat, communications manager at The Wild Center. It’s an outdoor museum experience that compliments the educational component of The Wild Center.
The Wild Walk is more than 1,000 feet long and follows a winding trail of bridges and platforms that begin at ground level and elevate to the treetops of the Adirondack forest, 40 feet off the ground. It’s accessible to all ages and abilities, including guests with mobility limitations.
The structure, says Legat, is designed to transform the way people see into the natural world by showcasing the perspective of the rest of nature—“where the forest is nursery, neighborhood, breadbasket, and home to a staggeringly diverse assemblage of plants and animals.”
The interactive experience includes a four-story twig treehouse, swinging bridges, and a spider web made of rope and netting where people can hang out, suspended high above the forest floor. At the highest point is a full-size bald eagle’s nest that visitors stand in and imagine life as a great bird of prey. There’s also a snag—a concrete replica of a huge, broken white pine—that illustrates from the inside how much life a “dead” tree in the forest supports. Naturalists are stationed along the walk, and four educational trunk programs feature info on outdoorsy topics like wild mushrooms or flying squirrels.
“You can go into The Wild Center and look at an exhibit about the history of the Adirondacks, then take the information to the Wild Walk and see it directly in front of you,” says Legat.
Taking it National
On a broader scale, edutainment has become a key focus for the Forest Service itself. In 2008, it introduced its own program to educate kids with outdoor-focused activity: National Get Outdoors Day. Since then, the Day has drawn tens of thousands of kids and families for nature-based play mixed with education programs. The goal is to introduce people to an active outdoor lifestyle.
“Forest Service leadership wanted to create something akin to take your kid to work day,” says Susan Alden Weingardt, partnership liaison with the USFS Rocky Mountain Regional Office. “Originally, the idea was to have the event in the forest. But to meet the objectives of introducing urban kids and families to the amazing outdoor recreation opportunities available, we needed to meet them where they are.” And that’s in the urban areas themselves.
The first event attracted more than 2,500 to Denver’s Sloan’s Lake Park for a day of climbing, canoeing, mountain biking, and educational Jr. Ranger programming. Since then, National Get Outdoors Day has grown significantly, with 231 sites in 29 states plus Washington, D.C., in 2016, and with multiple partners, such as Vail Resorts, REI, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and Denver Parks and Rec.
Held the second Saturday in June, a typical day includes a mix of nature-based play and outdoor education. Participants, mostly youth, engage in biking, stand-up paddle boarding, fishing, canoeing, climbing, and nature viewing. The USFS’s Jr. Ranger Camp provides an outdoor education component, with lessons on the Leave No Trace program, animal tracks, essentials for preparing for an adventure, the concept of “reduce, reuse, and recycle,” health and fitness, and more. The Coleman Company, a primary sponsor, brings its mobile museum that’s focused on camping and gear and sets up a campground, of sorts.
“Not only do kids learn about cool things they can do outside, they learn about where they can go and what organizations can help facilitate continued connection,” Weingardt adds.
“Every year there are compelling stories of families who have come to us and said, ‘this was life changing.’ Parents have told me that they didn’t realize how much their kids like sticks and rocks.”