VAIL - Vail Mountain is poised to become a summer playground.
Speaking to a packed house in the new community room atop the Lionshead Parking Structure, Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz Thursday unveiled "Epic Discovery - a Summer Mountain Adventure," an ambitious plan for warm-weather recreation on the company's ski areas, starting with Vail Mountain.
The company announced the plan the day the proposed project was submitted to the U.S. Forest Service for approval. Virtually all of the resort sits on federal land and is subject to the feds' environmental and other regulations. Katz said the approval process could take between a year and 18 months, but added that he expects to have the first elements of the plan in place by the summer of 2014.
The work can happen quickly because it will happen at or near areas on the mountain that have already been developed. It's also a lot easier to run a zip line than it is to build a gondola.
The result, Katz said, could be a new era in the history of the mountain.
"We're re-imagining what summer can be like," he said.
Katz said he and other company officials started thinking about ways to expand summer business several years ago. They quickly discovered that adding summer events and activities would literally require an act of Congress, given the restrictions in the then-existing ski area management laws.
Those restrictions meant ski areas that wanted to be in the summer recreation business had to build facilities on private land. Vail Resorts was able to successfully build an alpine slide on private land in Breckenridge, but was thwarted by neighbors when it proposed a similar project at Beaver Creek.
Wanting to do more, the company made its case for summer recreation to then-Rep. Mark Udall - now a U.S. Senator from Colorado - who kept introducing what he called the "Ski Area Recreational Opportunities Enhancement Act." After years of trying, the bill was passed and signed into law last year.
That's when the resort company's planning went into high gear.
Eagle County Commissioner Jon Stavney, who attended Thursday's announcement, called the project a "game changer" for summer tourism in the valley.
Katz said the idea behind the Epic Discovery program is to put more paying guests on Vail Mountain in the summer, of course. But, he added, those people, especially kids, will be able to learn a lot about the forest environment in a safe, accessible way.
The plan includes several zip lines, ranging from quick rides to hours-long canopy tours. The plan also includes ropes courses and family-oriented activities, from expanded hiking and biking trails to Segway scooter rides on the mountain.
There's adventure involved, of course, but Katz said Epic Discovery also wants to make the mountain accessible to people who might not have been to Vail before, including destination visitors, Front Range tourists, and the vast number of summer travelers - including about 3 million travelers who visit Rocky Mountain National Park every summer - who pass through while driving along Interstate 70.
Fun is the main draw, of course, but Katz said education will play a big role in the Epic Discovery universe, too.
The primary element in the educational parts of Epic Discovery is "learning through play," Katz said. That kind of learning can get youngsters inspired to learn about the forest and how to care for it. That's going to include "interpretive" areas that tell guests about the forest. But it also includes treading lightly on the mountain, Katz said.
For instance, Katz carefully described the proposed "Forest Flyer," a kind of alpine slide on raised rails. Most of that careful description involved not calling the ride any kind of roller coaster. Katz said he'd expect the people who grade amusement park coasters to give the Forest Flyer an F.
"We don't want to be Elitches (in Denver)," Katz said more than once.
The educational part of Epic Discovery also includes working with The Nature Conservancy, one of the country's biggest conservation organizations. That partnership includes donating 1 percent of all summer revenue to the group that it can then put toward forest restoration projects.
Tim Sullivan, director of the Colorado chapter of the Nature Conservancy, said the group has worked with Vail Resorts before, particularly in its efforts to rehabilitate the thousands of acres of public land burned in the 2002 Hayman Fire.
"We're excited about the degree to which (Vail Resorts sees) education as part of their business model," Sullivan said.
While fun and education are the draws, Epic Discovery is also a business move, and Katz said the summer program could be good for businesses beyond the one he runs.
When Udall was promoting his bill, one of the selling points was creating more jobs in areas that have long had wide seasonal swings in their economies - in Vail alone, about 70 percent of annual sales tax revenues come from the ski season.
Katz said Epic Discovery will create several construction jobs in the short term, and will allow more seasonal employees to work year-round, or close to it. Summer activities on the mountain could also stretch Vail's summer beyond its traditional Fourth of July through late August period. Epic Discovery could push the season into June and, he said, could even stretch well into September, which would be a perfect time to bring school groups to the mountain.
And those benefits will be expanded to the company's other resorts in coming years, although to different degrees. Katz said Breckenridge is being considered for a comprehensive program, as is Heavenly, in California. The company's smaller resorts - including Beaver Creek, Northstar and Kirkwood - will probably see less-ambitious plans more suited to those resort brands.
Local restaurateur Brian Nolan said he's excited to see the Epic Discovery plan, especially since one of his restaurants is near the base of the Lionshead Gondola.
Over lunch, Nolan and Antlers Lodge General Manager Rob LeVine were only half-jokingly talking about people coming down tired and in need of a room after a day at Eagles Nest.
But Nolan wasn't joking at all when he said, "I'm looking forward to all the new guests it will bring."