Hoping to woo early season skiers and snowboarders, Afton Alps opened last week after undergoing a $10 million transformation, including a renovated visitors center and a new terrain park.
As temperatures fell, Afton opened three of its 50 ski runs on Nov. 23 after firing up its new snow-making turrets, which were installed as part of parent company Vail Resorts' investment in revamping the resort's snow-producing equipment. Officials say it's the largest single cash infusion in the resort's 50-year history.
On Monday, Afton workers dashed around putting the finishing touches on the visitors center, which will serve as a "one-stop shop" for visitors looking to buy a lift pass or sign up for ski school, officials said.
Several young snowboarders congregating in the parking lot said they were eager to see the improvements for themselves.
Austin Reuter, 17, said he had been coming to Afton for most of his life, while his friends Jake Spitzack, 17, and Josh Boyd, 18, nodded in agreement.
"The atmosphere feels a lot like home," said Reuter, who lives a few miles away in Hastings.
They were among the dozens of skiers and snowboarders who hit the slopes a few days after the opening in hopes of beating the crowds that normally descend once temperatures drop.
Nearby, recent California transplant Blake Swearengin, 23, said he was still trying to get used to riding on the resort's snow, which he says is more compact and slick.
The Mammoth Mountain ski area in California, for instance, is often blanketed in several feet of powder "so you come off a jump and you're going to sink, not just hit a bunch of ice," he said.
Among the improvements at Afton are two high-speed rope tows that whisk snowboarders and skiers up to the peaks, 72 tower guns capable of pumping out snow twice as fast as before; and a new terrain park and village, including a warming house and dining area, which was designed by Snow Park Technologies with snowboarders and freestyle skiers in mind. Snow Park also designed Winter X Game courses and ski runs in California, Colorado and New Hampshire.
"Now they can enjoy a beer down there. They can warm up in the warming hut. They can try the food truck," said marketing manager Amy Reents as she looked out at several of Afton's new snow-making guns blasting out fresh snow.
Afton was bought last year by Vail Resorts in a $20 million deal that also included the Mount Brighton ski area outside of Detroit. In addition to its two flagship resorts, Vail and Breckenridge, Vail also operates facilities at Beaver Creek and Keystone in Colorado; Heavenly, Northstar and Kirkwood in the Lake Tahoe area of California and Nevada; Grand Teton Lodge in Wyoming and Canyons in Utah.
Shortly after buying the popular Minnesota ski area, the ski resort giant announced plans to give Afton a makeover.
None of the Afton's nearly 1,000 seasonal workers were laid off during the transition, Reents said.
Since Vail took over ownership of the resort, Reents said the "business model inside is a bit more corporate" but "by and large the majority of customers don't see a big difference because they're all seeing the same faces."
Reents, whose family has owned Afton since 1963, said they had no intention of selling the resort before Vail presented them with "the opportunity for capital investment in the area," while "preserving the hometown nature."
"We create skiers. This is where skiers start. They learn here and get a passion for it," Reents said.