Winter Park Resort turns 70; town, mountain, throw birthday bash
Winter Park Resort turns 70 this year. The Winter Park/Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce and Winter Park Resort will celebrate with a three-day Winter Carnival Jan. 22-24. The event combines the beloved Mary Jane Birthday Bash with other annual January festivities put on by the chamber.
Festivities start at 7 p.m. Friday with the Annual Chef’s Cup Dinner and Dance, benefiting Winter Park Competition Center youth programs. This annual event showcases food from the finest chefs and restaurants located throughout Grand County. Attendees can enjoy a silent auction, cocktails, live music, dancing and sampling of area chefs’ best dishes as they compete for your approval for the People’s Choice award. Advance tickets are $55 per person, 2 tickets for $100 or $65 per ticket at the door and include complimentary beer and wine along with unlimited sampling. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 970-726-1590, or in person at the Winter Park-Fraser Valley Chamber of Commerce.
On Saturday and Sunday, the party continues on the slopes of Mary Jane with free bump tips, a snow sculpture contest, live music, apres ski party in Club Car Restaurant and birthday cake in honor of the late-1800s lady of the evening. Mary Jane is best known for her steeps, deeps and VW-size moguls- epitomizing what winter in Winter Park is all about. Visitors also will find retail and rental gear specials, gear demos and geocaching throughout the weekend. Kids can enjoy dog sled rides, a play zone, and campfires with s’mores and hot chocolate at the base area.
The weekend is a county-wide celebration; Grand Park in Fraser will play host to the Grand Park Dog Days of Winter, complete with sled dog races, skijoring (and clinics). A snowshoe race will benefit Grand County Pet Pals, a non-profit organization dedicated to responsible pet ownership, animal health and education programs, and spaying/neutering.
As night falls on Saturday, the party moves to Main Street in Winter Park as Hwy 40 becomes the epicenter of the celebration with music in Hideaway Park, a parade of lights and the highlight of spectacular fireworks overhead. Music begins at 4 p.m., and the parade begins at 6 p.m..
Well before George Cranmer of Denver Parks and Recreation suggested a plan to create a winter sports park in the mountains west of the Continental Divide, the area west of Moffat Tunnel was already emerging as a popular ski hill for Denver residents. The completion of the railroad tunnel in 1928 created a link between Denver and the Western Slope and, by the late 1930s, with interest in skiing growing, the U.S. Forest Service began building a few ski trails and jumps at Cooper Creek, near the railroad.
The first ski train shuttled skiers to Grand County in 1939. That year, Denver parks and rec installed a J-bar tow at “West Portal,” as the area around the Grand County entrance of Moffat Tunnel was then known. In December, the city held a dedication ceremony, renaming the new ski area “Winter Park.”
Tickets for the first season cost $1 and the city recorded nearly 10,700 skier days during the first year of operations.
In 1950, the area had three bar lifts and four rope tows. Skier numbers had reached more than 26,000 with tickets priced at $2. Realizing that it could no longer manage Winter Park operations with city staff, Denver created a non-profit agency with a 15-member volunteer board to oversee the operations and development of the ski area.
By the end of the decade, the board had invested more than half-a-million dollars in the ski area’s lift system – including its first chairlift – and had begun a national advertising campaign. Annual skier visits were topping 100,000 and lift tickets cost more than $4. The resort updated its historic base lodge – the Balcony House – and built its first on-mountain restaurant, Snoasis. Three more double chairs – Eskimo, Prospector and Looking Glass -were added to the system. Winter Park’s race team also was born.
Skier days reached well over 300,000 in the early 1970s with lift tickets prices rising to $6. Mary Jane officially opened for the 1975-76 ski season, costing Winter Park $4.6 million to develop. The complex contained four new double chairs, a 26,700-square-foot lodge, 18 trails, and 350 skiable acres, increasing Winter Park’s acreage by 80 percent. The Arrow became Winter Park’s first triple chairlift in 1977, replacing the aging Comet T-Bar. Snowmaking began that season, saving Winter Park from one of the state’s worst snow years on record.
In the early 1980s, West Portal Station was complete at the base of Winter Park. The center included shops, a cafeteria, bar, rentals and rest rooms. Tickets climbed to $18 with attendance reaching 750,000. Five new lifts opened up an additional 300 acres on the mountain in the 1980s, including Parsenn Bowl, the Sunnyside area and Vasquez Ridge. High Lonesome became the area’s first quad chair in the mid-80s.
When Winter Park Resort celebrated its 50th anniversary during the 1989-90 season, tickets were $30 and skier visits were approaching the 1 million mark. Over the course of the coming decade, chairlifts were updated, providing faster access to the top of the area’s three mountains and expanding its above tree-line terrain by another 500 acres to include Vasquez Cirque. In 1996, Gary DeFrange, the area’s current president, replaced Jerry Groswald, who retired from the position after 22 years. The area added its seventh high-speed quad chair and built its first terrain park. By the end of the 1990s, lift tickets topped $60 and annual skier visits continued to hover around 1 million per year.
In 2002, Denver entered into a 50-year partnership agreement with Intrawest, a Canadian corporation headquartered in Vancouver, BC, which has operated the resort since then.
Today, Winter Park Resort has more than 3,000 acres of skiable terrain, including 143 designated trails and 1,200 acres of off-piste, cirque and glade skiing. The resort’s four mountains are serviced by 25 lifts, including one gondola, two six-person chairs and seven express quads. The resort makes snow on nearly 300 acres and entered into a cloud seeding program with the Denver Water this year. Full-price adult lift tickets cost $92.
Information on the history of the ski area was compiled from the Winter Park Resort website and the Colorado Ski History website.
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