THE genial instructor knelt down and carefully placed a pair of skis in the middle of a circle of novices. He explained how to step into the bindings and then slide the skis across the floor. He helped one dubious blonde slip into gear. As she glided across the floor, shouts of ``Me next!'' and ``It's my turn!'' filled the air. Such scenes of what happens when a child's size 6 ski boot is locked onto a 70-cm ski are a daily occurrence at Ski Windham, a ski resort in New York's Catskill Mountains. The 6,000-square-foot children's center here epitomizes what is happening in the industry nationwide.
In a word: Kids!
The center includes a nursery, play area, crafts center, and a quiet corner, along with a staff of hand-picked attendants. The center has a heated floor and its own kitchen for lunches and snacks. A play area is just outside, and close by is a protected, small ski slope.
Kathe Dillman, marketing director for the United Ski Industries Association, says the construction of facilities for children over the past five or six years is ``almost unbelievable. It runs into millions.'' It's a strategy aimed at getting families onto the slopes.
When our own now 12-year-old twin daughters were taken on their first ski weekend (they were still in diapers), we found only one resort in all of New England that would accept them for day care. The attitude then was: ``You want a baby sitter? Here's a list of baby sitters you can call.''
By the time the twins were three, we found only a handful of major areas that had facilities for the six-and-under crowd. Today, those are almost universal at major ski resorts.
Facilities and programs vary. Some may have excellent programs for, say, three- to six-year olds, but do not accept children any younger. On the other hand, Sun Valley, Idaho, has a full-scale children's center in the resort's shopping mall that accepts children as young as two months. Kids in the ski school are bused to the slopes.
As a rule, youngsters three and under play in the snow in a protected yard while the fours and up are given lessons. Equipment and lift tickets may be included in the price.
The need for well-trained staffs and a low staff-to-child ratio is one obvious reason children's centers are not inexpensive. Foster Chandler, a marketing executive at Killington, Vt., says state law mandates a ratio - from one adult for every four children under two, up to one adult for every 10 four- to six-year-olds.
Day care that does not include ski lessons is the least expensive. The cost at Killington is $30 a day; at Vail, Colo., the Small World Play School for children two months to 6 years old is $45 a day. Steamboat Springs, Colo., charges $28 a day for one, and $16 for each additional sibling; Ski Windham is $33 daily.
When day care also includes ski lessons for the six-and-under group, the rates go up. At Killington, it's an additional $18, including equipment rental.
Beyond the day-care centers are the ski schools for juniors in the six- to 12-year-old bracket. A one-day session at Sun Valley is $45 and does not include equipment or lift tickets. The cost is the same at Heavenly Valley at Lake Tahoe, California, but at Camelback, in the Pennsylvania Poconos, the one-day charge is $45, which includes lunch and lift tickets. Killington's all-day rate is $65, including rentals and lift tickets. The fee at Vail is $53 and also includes rentals.
The first skis our twins had were tie-on plastic fastened to imitation rubber ski boots. Today, says Rob Lane, manager of the Little Falls, N.J., Ski Barn, ``Anything parents can get, kids can get - only in smaller sizes, but not a lot less money.''
Junior ticket rates for children under 12 have long been common. A few years ago Steamboat Springs startled the ski industry by offering free lift tickets and housing for each child under 12 with a paying adult. Last year, Sun Valley upped the deal by offering free lift tickets and housing for two children with each paying adult. And the cutoff age is 17. There's not a snowflake of doubt the huge investment in children's programs is paying off, says Ms. Dillman of the United Ski Industries Association. Last year, the nation's ski resorts registered almost 750,000 skier days for children under 12, nearly twice the number of five years ago.