"Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow "
That's the tune California ski resort operators are finally able to sing. For a while, though, the lyrics were more like a prayer. Summer and fall temperatures lingered unseasonably late, fending off Mother Nature's attempts at snowmaking and keeping it much too warm to sustain machine-made snow.
"This has been our worst start ever, it's been so warm," said Chris Riddle, a spokesman for Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake. "But things are looking up."
For most ski areas, the first tentative blanketing of snow came in mid-December. At Mammoth Mountain in the High Sierra, with the highest peaks at 11,050 feet, snow began to fall Dec. 11 and lasted for three days.
"We went from dirt to full operation in three days, said Mammoth resort spokeswoman Wendy Kelley.
A mid-December storm failed to materialize, but a sudden dip in temperatures finally made it cold enough for resorts to crank up the snow-making machines.
Although the success of the ski season always depends on the weather, the Sierra is forecast to get higher-than-normal levels of snow this winter, just as it did last year. Last winter, the mountains received an average of 379 inches, up 70 percent over 1993-1994, said Bob Roberts, executive director of the California Ski Industry Association in San Francisco.
Although the number of visits to the nation's ski resorts dipped from 54.6 million in 1993-1994 to 52.6 million in 1994-1995, the number of visits to California ski slopes totaled 6.2 million in 1993-1994 and climbed to 7 million in 1994-1995, with promise for even more skiers this year, he said.
Besides the weather, Mr. Roberts credits the increase to a growing interest in snowboarding and an effort by resorts to attract foreign visitors.
Snowboarding -- which began seven or eight seasons ago -- now accounts for 20 to 40 percent of many ski resorts' business, Mr. Roberts said. And an international marketing program launched four seasons ago by resorts in Mammoth and Tahoe is expected to draw 12,000 to 14,000 skiers from Great Britain alone this year.
All that warm weather at the beginning of the season gave resort operators extra time to spiff up their facilities, including installing new carpeting in ski lodges and improving ski-rental and ticket-purchase areas.
Here's a rundown of some major improvements at resorts:
* Bear Mountain at Big Bear Lake: At the Dynastar Test Center, skiers can test skis for $10 during a four-hour period.
"You can ski into the building, pick out the skis you want to try and ski out," said Jessica Ho, spokeswoman for Bear Mountain. "It's kind of like a Jiffy Lube. There'll be guys in the pit underneath you who'll adjust your skis, and you'll go. It's the best way to avoid buying the wrong pair of skis."
* Snow Summit at Big Bear Lake: The resort has added a $2.5 million high-speed lift and created the Freestyle Park, an area for less-experienced snowboarders offering more than a mile of jumps, hits and slideshalf-pipe, said resort President Richard C. Kun.
* Mammoth Mountain: An electric monorail with two attached cabins, each holding 22 people, can go about 25 mph, picking up and dropping off skiers at five stations between Chair 2 and the resort's main lodge, Ms. Kelley said.
"We hope to cut down quite a bit on auto traffic," Ms. Kelley said. "The monorail's a much quicker, safer way of transportation."
* Heavenly near Lake Tahoe: A Magic Carpet, a stair-less escalator, has been installed in the children's ski area, said spokeswoman Jeannie Taylor. The kids just step on, skis and all, to get to the top of the bunny slope.
"They get so tired and frustrated their first day on the mountain," Ms. Taylor said. "This keeps them from having to sidestep up the mountain. They can get up there faster so they can ski more."
* Alpine Meadows at Lake Tahoe: A new ticket plaza with more ticket windows should cut down on waiting lines, and lodge facelifts should attract apres-skiers, said spokeswoman Brinn Talbot.
* Squaw Creek at Squaw Valley: The resort has opened more trails for snowshoers, with more rentals available, said spokeswoman Mary Jane Kolassa.
* Northstar at Tahoe near Lake Tahoe: Electronic lift-ticket machines read armbands issued to skiers who join Club Vertical, awarding discounts based on the number of vertical feet skied. A Dynastar Test Center allows skiers to sample different kinds of skis for four hours for $10, a Magic Carpet gets kids to the tops of the bunny slope and an electronic trail map gives updated information about the length of lift lines, current temperatures and winds, said spokeswoman Judy Daniels.
* Snowcrest (formerly Snowcrest at Kratka Ridge) in La Canada-Flintridge: New owners Jackie and John Steely have changed the name and installed improvements, including snowmaking machines.
"We have a brand-new snowboard park," Jackie Steely said. "It's 300 feet long and 10 feet deep. We're going to be building pipelines and hits and all the stuff the kids like."
* Badger Pass in Yosemite Valley: Lifts have been upgraded with new lift houses, more skis are available in the rental shop, more areas have been opened for snowboarding and more lift ticket machines have been installed.
"Now, you can go to the rental shop and buy a ticket there," said resort spokesman Bruce Brossman. "It should mean fewer stops for people. We've also done extensive clearing of dry, dead trees. There'll be a lot more skiable terrain this year."