Disney on snow? Snowbird’s Fast Tracks lanes have come under fire, but are within resort’s rights

Allowing people to pay to cut lift lines will make the sport even more elitist, some skiers and snowboarders say.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Skiers at Snowbird on Friday, March 13, 2020.

Ski areas have been winter’s playgrounds for decades. This week, one company took them a step closer to amusement park status, and many longtime patrons aren’t thrilled.

Snowbird announced Monday it would be installing Fast Tracks Express Lanes at six of its most popular lifts. Similar to initiatives that have existed for years at some of the nation’s best-known amusement parks, Fast Tracks allows skiers or snowboarders to pay a premium to cut to the front of the line.

At Snowbird, the base price of the premium is $69 per day, though it will go up on high-demand days such as holidays and weekends. Starting Nov. 1, Fast Tracks is available to anyone with access to the lifts, including those with a single-day ticket, a Snowbird or Alta-Bird pass, an Ikon Pass or a Mountain Collective pass.

POWDR, which owns Snowbird, also placed Fast Tracks lanes at three other resorts: Mount Bachelor in Oregon, Copper Mountain in Colorado and Killington in Vermont.

“We are exploring the opportunity to solve for our guests’ greatest pain points by becoming one of the first adventure lifestyle companies to provide upgrades that maximize the on-mountain experience,” Wade Martin, co-president at POWDR, said in a news release.

Snowbird already offered line cutting on all lifts as part of its luxury Seven Summits Priority Pass in addition to access to a private on-mountain club and the Cliff Spa and valet parking. Guests can also pay for a private locker and lounge area, known as Base Camp, or for guided experiences.

Dave Fields, Snowbird’s general manager, told The Salt Lake Tribune that Fast Tracks fits in with those boutique offerings.

“The intent of Fast Tracks,” he said in an email, “is to provide guests an option for a customizable experience on an a la carte basis, as opposed to a season-long commitment.”

The express lanes will be implemented on the Peruvian, Gadzoom, Gad 2, Little Cloud, Mineral Basin and Baldy lifts. The pass cannot be used to board the Aerial Tram.

Fields declined to say how many Fast Tracks passes can be sold each day. It will be few enough, he said, that he expects the impact on those without the pass “to be minimal.”

He hinted the lines may even seem to move quickly compared to what skiers and boarders have recently experienced.

Last season, as resorts nationwide tried to provide as safe an experience as possible during the crux of the COVID epidemic, they implemented empty “ghost lanes” at lifts and refrained from filling chairs to capacity. The result were lines of skiers and boarders that stretched nearly as far up ski hills as the photos of them did across social media. This winter, Snowbird is one of many resorts doing away with those protocols and returning to loading chairs to full capacity.

Paying to cut in line isn’t a new concept. Universal Studios has been up-charging for that privilege since 2013.

For what it’s worth, an independent audit showed the FastPass+ program, which allowed visitors express access to three rides for free before Disney ditched it to offer a paid program starting next week, was shown to increase wait times at Walt Disney World by less than a minute. At some rides, it actually reduced the time in line.

Still many skiers and snowboarders are balking at the charge at their local hills, and wondering if it’s the start of a troubling trend. Some pointed out that, unlike at amusement parks or on airlines, conditions on a ski hill deteriorate in a short time, making waiting more costly. Others said the initiative further rewards the rich in a sport already beleaguered by its reputation for being elitist.

A petition to halt the program was started Wednesday on Change.org, and even a United States senator has weighed in on the issue. In response to the implementation of Fast Tracks at Mount Bachelor, Ron Wyden sent a letter to John Cumming, chairman and founder of Park City-based POWDR, demanding the company abandon the new initiative. Wyden said it is an inequitable use of U.S. Forest Service land.

He said his concerns “are rooted in the understanding that a two-tiered system of access to public lands based on financial ability is antithetical to equity in the outdoors, leaving those who cannot afford to pay for the pass being literally sent to the back of the line.”

Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune Skiers at Snowbird Wednesday December 30, 2015.

Like Mount Bachelor, Snowbird operates on public lands via a U.S. Forest Service Special Use Permit. And Ben Kraja, who manages the special use permits for several resorts through the U.S. Forest Service’s Salt Lake District, said running a program like Fast Tracks is within the resort’s rights.

“There is Forest Service policy and permit requirements that exist to ensure equal access and nondiscrimination in programs and services provided to the general public,” Kraja said. “So in this instance, the Fast Tracks program is equally available to everyone for that price. So as long as they’re not discriminating about who they’re selling that Fast Tracks pass to, then they’re within policy.”

If Snowbird starts limiting access to parts of the mountain — like reserving certain runs on powder days, complete with a red rope, as some concerned skiers fear could be the next add-on — Kraja said the forest service will take a close look at it.

“We’re in favor of providing access to folks recreating,” he said, “but we also want, you know, ski areas and folks that have those long term, 40-year-term permits to be a successful business operator because they’re a partner to us.”

Fields noted that Snowbird works with a few programs that provide skiing and snowboarding opportunities for those who otherwise might not be able to afford it. For example, adaptive athletes always have access to Snowbird’s lifts via an agreement with Wasatch Adaptive Sport. In addition, the resort helps support school-based ski and ride programs.

“We are invested in making skiing and riding more equitable and accessible for all,” he wrote.

Anyone who can’t get behind Fast Tracks but already bought a season pass, which currently are selling for $1,300 for an adult, can request a refund before the season starts. The resort will “talk with them and explore options,” Fields said. Once the resort opens, he added, no refunds will be issued.