The crates began arriving at Jay Peak in Vermont Monday, huge crates bearing huge things. They were statues, 1,500 pounds and more, of Buzz Lightyear, Jessie, some toy soldiers. At first, no one at the resort quite knew where to put stuff that big, but in an hour, space was found, and in came the first characters from the “Toy Story” movies.
It marked the beginning of one of the most unusual partnerships in New England snow country, and the arrival of a major new player in the world of winter sports, the Disney Corporation.
By mid-January, according to spokesmen at Jay Peak, 5 acres of terrain called the Playtime Burton Riglet Park will open to prospective new snowboarders ages 3 to 12, dedicated to creating new young enthusiasts of the sport.
Under the licensing deal with Disney, the statues of familiar “Toy Story” characters will appear in the park, along with features aimed at enticing newcomers.
“Our whole approach is to let the kids play and have fun,” said Jeff Boliba, Burton’s vice president for Global Resorts who brokered the deal with Jay, Burton, and Disney. “his is not about learning technical turns or trying to get them to the blue runs. Our goal is clear and simple: Let the kids play and let them have fun, and the rest will follow.”
The new park comes just a year after Jay opened its 50,000-square-foot Pump House Waterpark, with its many features and rides intended to take the winter vacation into new dimensions. Jay also features a full ice arena. , again an alternative to standard snow-oriented vacation fare.
Burton’s first venture into the theme park world was a partnership two years ago with Lucasfilm in Northstar Tahoe to create a “Star Wars” snowboard park, which, according to Jay spokesman J.J. Toland, “met with resounding success. It just drew kids in because of the iconic nature of that franchise.”
So last July, when Boliba approached Jay to create a Disney-themed riglet park aimed at introducing the youngest riders to the sport, Jay planners quickly saw the benefits. Not that kids’ boarding parks are new to the landscape, but the idea of a major theme park extends the idea.
Burton, said Toland, “has introduced boarding through play — a tree fort or some stations and that kind of thing — before. But they had never done anything on the scale of tapping into pop culture until two years ago when [Boliba] approached Lucas and made Tahoe happen.”
A Burlington, Vt., native who has skied Jay for approximately 20 years, Boliba invented the concept of a riglet — a piece of hardware like a reel on the front of a snowboard that lets an instructor tow young riders so that they can keep both feet on the board as they acquire balance and get used to the feeling on the board. This was a discovery he made towing his own child.
“What’s really amazing when you watch kids interact with this [‘Star Wars’] environment,” said Boliba, “is how much this approach helps coaches corral the kids and do their job. You see how really powerful the approach is.”
Because of Jay’s interest in expanding, its winter vacation options, it seemed a natural to try a new theme park approach to a riglet park. Boliba pitched the idea to Jay and Disney. Half a year later, the concept is becoming reality.
“Jay Peak has been a longtime learning partner [with Burton],” said Boliba. “And the timing was perfect. So here we are now, and The ‘Toy Story’ trilogy is such a strong theme, it was really a great way for Disney to interact with our brand and change peoples’ lives on snow.”
Toland agrees, and explains that while learning centers are not uncommon, the Jay park goes many steps further.
“This concept to this level of execution has never been done on the East Coast,” he said. “Partnering with an iconic movie franchise to interact with kids that age — you don’t find that outside California.”
The giant carvings, including a large spaceship, will be placed throughout the park and create various approaches for the new riders who might go “over, under, or through them,” according to Boliba.
“You’ll go into the grand entryway where there’ll be Woody and Jessie and a bunch of toy soldiers greeting you,” he said. “The first section will be like the claw that goes down and picks up the stuffed animals. That will be the first progression.
“Then the second will be the Toy Soldier Limbo, and finally the next is Rex’s Rodeo, which is basically a playground-style structure where Rex is located. Kids will be able to play on that as well as snowboard on it.
“Then the finishing is going to be Star Command, where Buzz Lightyear is.
“I’m really excited, because we’re not just setting up the kids to succeed but also setting the coaches up to succeed because they now have this amazing tool to work with to get young kids snowboarding.
“It’s so important to remember that for young kids it is about play. They don’t even know they’re learning.”
Through the years, Jay has developed the reputation as a mountain for serious skiers and riders, — meaning lots of challenging terrain. So so the focus on young and “never ever” boarders is something of a brand expansion.
Said Toland, “We want to get over the idea that you don’t come to Jay Peak unless you’re super-hard-core.”
The park includes two new lifts dedicated to serving novice terrain. Aside from licensing the park, Disney worked out the design specs for the carvings and provided the carvers.
In an industry that relies on new recruits and is experiencing heavy competition, an effort to get ever newer, younger snowboarders is of utmost importance.
“The need is real,” said Toland. ““Every bit of data we see is telling us that if we don’t do a better job bringing new people into the sport, the world of skiing and riding is going to be a drastically different landscape than it is now,” .
“We have a glut of Baby Boomers who will be exiting the sport over the next five to 15 years. And that group is why today you have [a national figure of] 60 million visits. If we don’t do a good job, maybe by 2020 that number will be down to 45 million, and if that happens, there’ll be a lot of bad things going down.
“That’s exactly the point of this partnership and initiative. We want to engage new young boarders on such an emotional level they fall in love with it.”