By Paul Foy, Associated Press -- Utah's ski industry is getting an early-season intravenous shot. Ski-pass sales and lodging reservations are up as resorts reap the benefit of an improving economy. Even the weather is cooperating, with November building up snow equity on the slopes.
Utah boosters hope the Sochi Olympics whip up enthusiasm for skiing in the state that held the 2002 Winter Games.
Many of the 14 Utah resorts are stepping up offerings for season-pass holders, daily visitors and young learners. They're holding prices, offering special deals and notably, more multiresort privileges. For vacationers who can't plan early-season purchases, Utah's Eagle Point ski area will offer $25 lift tickets to anyone on Thursdays and Sundays when it opens Dec. 19.
It's shaping up as a season of hope for Utah skiing after a pair of unimpressive snow years. By mid-November, Park City had booked 28 percent of the season for lodging at a pace a fifth faster than the year before, industry officials say.
The early bookings come as Park City Mountain Resorts prepares to celebrate its storied 50-year history with a season-long series of live music, fireworks and giveaways.
"The early-season snowfall helped calm fears," said Nathan Rafferty, president of the trade group Ski Utah. After a pair of lackluster winters, Utah was itching for a comeback and appears to be getting it, he said.
"We haven't seen this kind of sustained strength in the mountain lodging industry since pre-2008," said Ralf Garrison, director of Denver-based analysts DestiMetrics.
Resorts around Salt Lake City have modernized rapidly since the 2002 Olympics, and skiers can expect more improvements on the slope this winter. Fast lifts can now be found at most of the resorts, and Brighton Resort is opening a girls-only snowboard terrain park.
Snowbird replaced its pokey two-seat Gad 2 with a high-speed quad, cutting ride time in half on a popular side of the mountain. Brian Head in southern Utah poured $3.5 million into base lodges and magic-carpet surface lifts. Other Utah resorts invested in snow-making, grooming fleets and dining options.
Another convenience is unfolding off the slopes. Salt Lake City's airport is now served by light-rail transit, which can connect vacationing skiers — with bus transfers — to Alta and Snowbird or Brighton and Solitude in the canyons east of Salt Lake City. Eventually, Utah wants to run light-rail directly to the four resorts. Mass transit is shaping up as an alternative to renting a car.
A wild card for the ski industry — the legalization of marijuana in neighboring Colorado — has Utah resorts feeling queasy. Will it siphon off frat boy skiers to Colorado and send more families to Utah?
There's no sign either is happening, say Colorado and Utah resort officials who are trying to make it a nonissue, even as Rafferty concedes, "It is something everyone wants to talk about."
Rich Gomez, for one, said the pot dilemma "means nothing" for his skiing decisions. A 59-year-old businessman from Trabuco Canyon, Calif., he prefers Utah's uncrowded slopes, deep powder and lift and lodging rates that are a bargain by Colorado or California standards.
"Look at the snow here — it's better," said Gomez, who was skiing with his grandchildren at Brighton Resort last week on a $49 lift ticket. "Utah is different. It's more laid-back. Colorado is nice, but it's tougher to get to and more expensive."
Gomez likes that he can choose among eight resorts within an hour's drive of the Salt Lake airport. His son-in-law, Allen Basso of San Clemente, Calif., summed up a day at Brighton by declaring he found "not one line" at the bottom of a ski lift.
Others at Brighton doubted that dope-smoking skiers would avoid Utah to descend on Colorado.
"We can do it on the sly here, but we're not admitting anything," joked Matt Burk, a 49-year-old medical respiratory therapist from Salt Lake City.
Anything that keeps Utah skiing low-profile is good, said Burke and his ski buddy, Torg Hickman, a 46-year-old nursing assistant. Both plan to take February off for skiing, burning a year's vacation time.
"This is the best place in the world," crowed Hickman, who has been skiing in Utah for 37 years.
Utah skiers can largely thank a Colorado company for putting downward pressure on ticket and pass rates. Vail Resorts Inc. took over Canyons Resort at Park City and brought a popular multiresort pass to Utah.
For around $700 — a bargain by industry standards — Vail's EPIC pass gives skiers the run of six Colorado resorts, one in Utah, and three around Lake Tahoe, plus some free skiing at select European resorts.
Vail sold around 350,000 EPIC passes before sales closed Sunday (Nov. 24), up from 300,000 last winter, executives say. With buyers in all 50 states and 80 countries snapping it up, Utah expects to grab more out-of-state skiers because of it.
"The big story is Vail brought the EPIC pass to town. And we're seeing other resorts join forces," Rafferty said. "That's good for Utah skiers."
Brighton and Solitude offered early-season buyers a joint Big Cottonwood Canyon pass for the first time this winter, and they made a connecting trail between resorts easier to navigate.
In addition, Alta and Snowbird teamed up on a pass option with some neighbors over the Wasatch Ridge, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley. A season-pass holder at any one of the four resorts will now get three days of skiing at each of the others.
You don't need a season pass to find deals. Alta and Snowbird are cutting ticket prices in half for airline passengers who, after registering online, show up with a boarding pass within 24 hours of arrival. Anyone can buy discounted tickets at many ski shops in the Salt Lake valley, generally for $5 less than published rates.
In Utah, lift tickets range from $32 to $108 a day.
For less than $40 a day, several resorts are offering equipment and lessons during January. Park City offers a similar deal all season long with a package of five lessons.
The best deal for Utah skiers is for 5th and 6th graders: They can get three days of skiing at each of Utah's resorts for $30 — that works out to 71 cents a day. It doesn't get cheaper.
"We hear it all the time: 'Skiing's too expensive,'" Rafferty said. "But there are great programs out there."