Winter Park is a winter wonderland for the disabled

November 15, 1992|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Staff Writer

Skiers at Colorado's Winter Park resort often find themselves being passed by amputees zipping along on specialized skis or folks wearing Day-Glo orange vests with "Blind Skier" emblems.

They also notice a preponderance of kids enjoying the snowy terrain as well.

This unpretentious ski resort, nestled in the Arapaho National Forest 67 miles from Denver, is favored by disabled skiers and parents with kids in tow for good reason.

The resort's small-town, down-home atmosphere and its sampling of family ski lodges have made it a choice destination for the family crowd. And the resort's emphasis on accommodating and teaching skiing to those with a diverse range of handicaps has made it a favorite among disabled skiers.

Winter Park is recognized in the ski and sporting industries as being on the cutting edge of innovation in disabled ski programs.

An affable man named Hal O'Leary has a lot to do with that distinction. A ski instructor at the resort in the late 1960s, Mr. O'Leary started a ski instruction program for the disabled in the 1970s and founded the National Sports Center for the Disabled, a resource center for disabled skiers that organizes recreational and competitive ski events.

In fact, approximately 3,000 visitors with disabilities come to the resort each ski season, drawn by its skier education and competition programs.

Winter Park's disabled skier program boasts about a dozen certified ski instructors, a thousand volunteers and a large supply of specialized ski equipment that is lent to the disabled.

While Mr. O'Leary is proud to see the program bustling with disabled skiers with advanced skills, the heart of the program remains getting disabled people on skis for the first time, he says.

"Some disabilities can be physically very confining. Particularly with someone who has recently become disabled, that confinement can be a mental confinement, too," says Mr. O'Leary.

A world of freedom

"But when we get a person skiing, it almost always breaks open a world of freedom and expression for them. The most exhilarating thing for me is actually seeing people come out of an emotional shell after they've been shown they can do this."

The resort's emphasis on catering to the disabled and families, though, doesn't mean its terrain is less challenging.

Winter Park may not offer steep, nerve-rattling verticals or extreme skiing, but it does give its skiers diverse terrain and scenery and ranks up there with such favored Western ski spots as Park City, Utah; Breckenridge, Colo., and even Vail, Colo.

Its edge is that vagary called "atmosphere."

You won't find the glitz (and crowds) of a Vail or Park City, and you're more likely to see people dressed in jeans and baggy ski parkas on the slope than in the latest tres chic fashion.

The town of Winter Park also lacks the risen-again mining town charm of, say, a Breckenridge or a Steamboat, Colo. It claims one traffic light, and the hottest spot in town is a restaurant-bar called Deno's that features excellent live music and an interesting, moderately priced menu. But be prepared, this place is easy to mistake for an Elks Lodge as you drive down Main Street -- unless one of the locals has clued you in.

Family ski lodges

Most lodging in Winter Park is nestled along winding roads tucked away in the stands of aromatic fir and pine trees. While there are ample condominiums and town houses to be booked, to get the true feeling of Winter Park, a good choice is one of the family ski lodges.

Once among the most common accommodation in many Western U.S. ski resorts, the lodges are difficult to find today.

Winter Park has six still operating. Their hallmarks are big, home-cooked meals and great rooms with roaring hearths and chattering guests. It's a wear-your-favorite slippers atmosphere that makes it easy to meet new ski partners.

The Woodspur Lodge is a good example of the ambience most of the lodges offer.

In the morning, guests are greeted in the rustic dining hall with fresh brewed coffee and a crackling fire. If you aren't much of a conversationalist before a couple hundred milligrams of caffeine, there's the panoramic vista of the mountains for contemplation from the great room or the night's snowfall count to check on from the expansive front deck.

Like most ski lodges offering meals, the Woodspur serves two daily, breakfast and dinner. All are home-cooked, Paul Bunyon-style offerings.

In the evenings after the workout on the slopes, the Woodspur opens a cozy, amply stocked pub on the lower floor, complete with pool table, television and huge couches. There are also two outdoor hot tubs to soak the muscles, trade war stories of the day's adventures and enjoy the spectacular mountain scenery.

Most lodges are staffed by affable young workers, eager to share with visitors the best ski runs and where the best bet for night life is on a particular evening.

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