Browse Our Archives

January 2010

Summer In the Air

Many ski areas are turning into adventure parks during the summer months.

Written by Ken Castle | 0 comment

Screams of glee and mock terror echo through the woods as people feel, for the first time, the elation of flying through old-growth trees, suspended from steel cables 150 feet off the ground. Whatever happened to those lazy days of summer?

It seems like such a simple concept, but the sense of freedom that comes from soaring through a forest, or scampering across a rope bridge on a canopy tour, is generating more buzz than almost anything else in the resort industry today. Just when you thought there was no better out-of-body experience than bashing through waist-high powder, along comes the zipline. And weather is almost never an issue.

Ski resorts have flirted with summer rides for more than three decades, installing Alpine slides, bungee jumps, ropes courses and climbing walls. Those have all brought incremental business in the warm months of the year—as long as they were in vogue. But nothing, it seems, has grabbed the attention of the public like ziplines and canopy tours. Or given resort operators such an immediate and consistent new revenue stream.

The math is hard to dispute. If a ski area installs a $1 million replacement chairlift, it’s hard to measure the ROI. By contrast, build a zipline or a canopy tour, at a cost of $400,000 to $1 million, and the incremental business is immediate and measurable. Some areas have recovered their investment in a year, and even Cadillac installations can be amortized in two or three years. A no-brainer? It can be, with the right infrastructure.

There is a growing number of vendors that specialize in custom design and installation of these aerial attractions. Currently the leaders are ZipRider of Park City, Utah (, which makes stand-alone zipline rides, and Bonsai Design Inc. of Grand Junction, Colo. (, which builds canopy treetop tours that can include ziplines, ropes bridges and other elements. Naturally, new companies, seeing the growth opportunities, are emerging quickly.

ZipRider inventor and owner Eric Cylvick says his installations cost $600,000 to $700,000 for a two-cable setup and $900,000 to $1 million for four cables, but the return has been rapid. “We have places with 30 to 40 percent returns, and everyone is at more than 20 percent,” he adds. To construct a canopy tour, initial costs typically range from $400,000 to $700,000, although a top-drawer layout might reach the $1 million mark, according to Bonsai Design.

What’s the difference? A ZipRider is built from the ground up on pre-engineered, manmade structures, and is intended for high-volume solo traffic, much like an amusement park ride. A canopy tour is more like a ropes course, with a layout that uses existing trees for platforms and zipline attachments. It typically consists of supervised excursions that involve two guides and a “platoon” of six to 10 participants.

With a pure-play zip ride, the allure is a minute or so of high-speed downhill whoopee. With a canopy tour, it’s an hours-long interaction of zipping, bridging, hiking and rappelling through the forest while learning about the flora, fauna and human history of the area.

Mount Washington Resort at Bretton Woods, N.H., launched its canopy tour in late 2008, but already it has become so popular that this year-round attraction now accounts for nearly 10 percent of the resort’s annual revenue, according to Chris Ellms, director of ski area operations.

On a typical August weekend, the tour is booked seven to 10 days in advance, often with a waiting list. At $110 per person for adults, the area can run as many as 10 tours a day, or 80 participants. These aren’t fair-weather adventurers, either. Summer showers, which might be a deterrent for other activities, don’t seem to bother the faithful, he says. After all, rain filtering through 200-year-old hemlocks can add a mist-ical element to the experience. Unless, of course, the rain is accompanied by lightning, which shuts down the operation. Since the tour operates through the winter, it enables creative ski-and-glide packages that accommodate up to 40 people a day.

Built by Bonsai Design, the Bretton Woods Canopy Tour consists of 10 cable ziplines and two adventure sky bridges suspended 50 feet above the forest floor. The ziplines vary, reaching up to 830 feet long and 150 feet high. And, for the adrenaline junkies, the final leg is the Williwaw Racing Zip, a dual cable apparatus that stokes competitive urges and conveniently terminates at the resort base lodge. Would that be like the 19th hole of a golf course? Would champagne be in order?

The tour is so unique that it practically markets itself. The resort gave the Canopy Tour a major marketing launch—focusing on summer packages with overnight stays at the luxury hotel, golf and spa treatments—but word of mouth, says Ellms, has been “nothing short of fantastic. A guest who experiences this passes it on tenfold, and that really surprised us.”

A successful canopy tour requires guides with superb people skills, he adds. The resort initially engaged outside trainers to build its contingent of guides, who number 14 or 15 on a busy summer day. “A lot of our guides come from the ski patrol, and our canopy tour director, Steve Nichipor, is a professional climbing guide,” Ellms says. “Steve’s been a big part of our success because he understands the guiding business, from safety to the technical side to the client care. He’s been able to train other employees, and at some point we want to do this entirely in-house.”

Ongoing maintenance is another requisite. “We have third-party inspections twice a year, and the trolleys have to be changed out regularly,” says Ellms. “The cables, which are plastic-coated to avoid any high-pitched whine, are going to get maybe 45,000 cycles before they are changed out as well. Each day, in the morning, we have a pre-course inspection, and if it’s snowing we have to shovel off the platforms.” One of the unexpected challenges, he adds, is shooing away porcupines to keep them from gnawing on the wooden platforms.

Ellms says the resort calculated the ROI to be 18 months. “Getting the throughput is dependent on your business and how you want to approach it,” he says. “We chose to do a world-class experience, and maximum throughput was not the main objective. What we wanted to do was drive room nights at the resort. We came up to the magic number, so this has been doing very well for us.”

To see the tour in action, check out the SAM On the Road video at

Another resort success story is New York’s Catamount, which opened its summer-only Adventure Park last May. Designed by a local company with Swiss consultants, the park logged 12,000 visitors during the summer. It comprises eight high ropes challenge courses, all with ziplines, and is situated in the woods under a canopy of pines and hardwoods. Some 115 bridges, fashioned out of rope, cable and wood, connect treetop platforms that range from six to 60 feet off the ground. Rated as yellow, green, blue, black and double-black, the courses distinguish ability/bravery levels. The toughest ones have wobbly bridges that demand steady legs and nerves.

“There are floating bridges, tunnels, ropes courses—so many imaginative things between platforms—that they present new and continuing challenges to get from one tree to another,” says Catamount general manager Bill Gilbert. “But we’ve really emphasized the safety aspects. There are double lines, so every participant is tethered to two cables.” Minimum age is eight, and there are restrictions for youngsters up to about 13, with tougher courses off limits.

“One thing that surprised me,” adds Gilbert, “is that we saw many groups of three or four women, but rarely any groups of men. And the women usually ended up on the most difficult courses.”

Unlike guided canopy tours, Catamount’s Adventure Park is designed to be self-service and can accommodate a continuous stream of participants. A good day may draw 350 people, with excess capacity still available for up to 500, he says. “We don’t require a large staff, although guides are available if people ask for them,” he notes. Also, helmets aren’t necessary, he adds, though the resort provides gloves and encourages participants to wear good sneakers, long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Each participant checks out a harness at the base lodge and gets a 15-minute orientation on how to clip on to both lines and navigate from one platform to another.

With an investment of $1 million, the park is patterned after installations in Switzerland and France, which together boast over 500 courses. “Based on the experience of these parks in Europe, we should be able to draw 18,000 to 20,000 people a year and pay for the whole thing in two more years,” says Gilbert. Admission last summer was $43 ($29 for children under 13) and included gear rental.

Catamount, he adds, is looking to partner with the park developer to build similar facilities at other ski areas.

SAM also visited Catamount and has a video of the adventure park at

Plenty of other resorts are on the prowl for aerial attractions. Camelback Ski Area, Pa., with its highly successful Camelbeach water park, is looking to complement that with an adventure park next year—including a summit-to-base zipline, according to Jerry Lawlor, vice president of sales and marketing. Lawlor believes that many of the 325,000 to 400,000 summer visitors are non-skiers. “They have a lower median income and a lot of them are impulse visitors, since water slides don’t require much skill or athleticism,” he says, while an adventure park is more likely to attract the resort’s core winter clientele and thus provide an incentive for a summer outing.

Colorado, which thus far is zip-less, may get several canopy attractions in the near future. One possible hang-up, however, is a pending update of U.S. Forest Service permit regulations, which currently do not include ziplines and canopy tours in their lease agreements with ski areas. Also, bark beetles have ravaged massive stretches of forest, leaving trees unsuitable for canopy tours.

Thus far Utah holds forth with the most ZipRider installations. Park City has two of them—one at Park City Mountain Resort and another at the Utah Olympic Center—and there is a third installation at Snowbird. All have been reporting brisk business, indicating that competing resorts can co-exist quite well. Maybe that’s because zipline aficionados collect as many experiences as they can.

Apart from the lure of added income and short-term ROI, the ziplines, canopy tours and other adventure attractions enable resorts to retain more of their employees on a year-round basis. At Park City Mountain Resort, which has a four-line ZipRider, an Alpine Slide and a new Alpine Coaster, “we’re able to roll 70 percent of our frontline winter staff into the summer business, allowing us to retain more full-time, year-around positions,” says Tom Pettigrew, director of skier services. Further, having more than 1,000 visitors a day stimulates added retail and food and beverage sales. “The park allows us to generate revenues from our existing capital improvements and utilize the resources of the land itself,” says Pettigrew.

And for resorts with conference facilities, such as Jiminy Peak, Mass., summer thrill rides represent a big draw for weddings, corporate outings and conventions, says marketing director Betsy Strickler. Jiminy’s Mountain Adventure Park has 12 attractions, though no zipline—yet.

At Wildcat, N.H., general manager Tom Caughey says that the area recovered the initial investment on its half-mile-long, four-cable ZipRider from sales of tickets ($20, with a second ride at $10) and sales of food and other activities in two-and-a-half summers of operation. The ride drives ticket sales for the Wildcat Gondola Express Skyride ($7 to $15 a head), he says, and guests are encouraged to take the gondola excursion while waiting for their turns on the ZipRider. “We will fully cover our install early in the fourth season on ZipRider tickets alone,” adds Caughey. Wildcat did most of the construction work in-house rather than contracting it out. With its bounty of paid sightseeing elements, the summer/ fall operation now accounts for 20 percent of annual revenues, Caughey says.

One caveat: If the popularity of an attraction starts to wane, it’s time to shop for something new. Once you’re in the amusement park business, resorts are discovering, the rule of bigger, better and faster keeps planners on their toes. That’s why resorts attending the amusement park trade show in Las Vegas last November were looking for all sorts of things, from paintball courses to mountain scooters (see separate article, page 60).

But if any of those run the risk of being a flash in the pan, the canopy builders believe that their close-to-nature installations with educational components will outlast everything else. “These are all about biodiversity and sustainability,” says Shrader. Indeed, who could ever get tired of hugging a tree?

Launched in 2008 with much fanfare, the Heavenly Flyer was billed as the longest zipline in the lower 48 states. Riders, plunging down a 3,300-foot cable, could reach speeds as high as 50 miles an hour as they scooted over the treetops on a 525-foot vertical descent. Almost unanimously, first-time participants are pumped. “One more scratch from my bucket list!” gushed a middle-aged woman on a YouTube video after she arrived on the landing platform.

But the Flyer is now closed indefinitely. Last August, a freak accident resulted in the death of a 51-year-old man and injury to his 47-year-old wife. The mishap occurred not on the zipline itself but on the nearby Tamarack Express six-passenger chairlift, some 100 yards away. The chair transports zipline riders to the Flyer’s take-off deck at 9,661 feet.

El Dorado County sheriff’s officials say that a wayward guide rope, which runs alongside the zipline, somehow drifted or was blown into the chairlift’s path and got tangled in a chair occupied by the couple. The rope yanked on the chair, upending it and tossing the man to his death 50 feet below on rocky terrain.

The bizarre incident showed that merging amusement park rides with ski operations can create unique challenges—safety being one of them. ZipRider president Eric Cylvick, a former snow safety manager at Park City Mountain Resort and an electrical engineer, says that his company provides maintenance and operations manuals customized to each installation and encourages resorts to carry out regular inspections.

Regulations vary from state to state. In California, ski lifts and amusement rides are inspected by the Ride and Tramway unit of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (DOSH). But some states, such as Utah, have declined to exercise jurisdiction over amusement rides, which include ziplines and canopy tours. In these cases, responsibility often falls to a ski area’s insurer.

And insurers are looking more closely at the design and operation of these new rides, says Jimmy Lawrence, vice-president for loss control with the Willis MountainGuard program. Willis insures 240 ski resorts, including five that have ZipRider installations. “We’re updating our playbook, and we’re consulting independent engineers who have done lift inspections for us, trying to get them exposed to these different attractions,” he says. The Heavenly incident, he adds, “heightens everyone’s awareness.”

Ziplines vary from fully engineered products such as ZipRider to “hybrid” rides that resorts construct themselves, Lawrence says. “One concern is whether the in-house attractions are as well designed, even with some engineering behind them, as those provided by outside vendors,” he notes. Among the things that inspectors look for is the amount of reliance placed on the rider to control speed or to self-clip into a harness. The more that is left to the customer, “the more you are leaving yourself open,” he says.

Currently, there are no ANSI (American National Standards Institute) standards for ziplines, canopy tours and ropes courses, and there are no initiatives underway by the National Ski Areas Association to change that. However, two other trade groups are attempting to set up operational and safety standards specific to this industry, the Professional Ropes Course Association and the Association for Challenge Course Technology. Both organizations claim to be accredited by ANSI as standards developers.

—Ken Castle