WILMOT, Wis. – Wilmot Mountain feels familiar but with a bright new sheen in the form of a $13 million upgrade.
Founded by Walter Stopa in 1938, the southeastern Wisconsin ski area remained a family-run operation until 2016, when Colorado-based Vail Resorts bought it.
On social media in the run up to opening day, area skiers expressed concerns about Wilmot’s heritage.
But when Wilmot opened for the 2016-17 ski season Wednesday, concern gave way to awe among those present as skiers saw what $13.2 million worth of improvements can do to a 120-acre ski resort.
Those improvements – repairing and refurbishing the lodge, installing three Dopplmayer quad chairlifts and reconfiguring the base area layout – accounted for Wilmot being one of the last Wisconsin ski areas to open this season, said Taylor Ogilvie, a Lincolnshire native and Wilmot’s new general manager.
“The goal was to be open before holiday break. It was the kind of job that used to take two years. It took us nine months,” Ogilvie said.
A later-than-usual weekday opening date didn’t deter all of the area’s skiers.
By 10 a.m. Wednesday, a dozen skiers were lined up for the first chair. Dozens more milled about the lodge.
“Lovely – just lovely,” said one early-morning skier as he walked in.
“It’s absolutely beautiful. Where did they get all the space?” said Al Sima, a Crystal Lake resident who has been a Wilmot Mountain season-pass holder for 40 years.
Wilmot didn’t add any square footage but found ways to use existing buildings more efficiently, expanding the dining areas by 400 seats in the process. There’s now an indoor picnic area for groups, guests and families who have brought lunches.
The fireplace is gone, and with it the familiar refrain of, “Meet me at the fireplace.”
“It couldn’t be brought up to code,” Wilmot’s marketing manager Rachael Muhlenbeck said.
“The fireplace was a totally custom job when they put it in. We weren’t able to replace it,” Ogilvie said.
There’s a new fire pit outside, however. The things that are gone – the Pizza Barn and the Iron Kettle restaurant – have been replaced. Instead there are the Ski Hill Grill and Walt’s Tavern, the latter named for Wilmot’s founder.
Nods to Stopa and his mountain’s legacy are present throughout the lodge.
“The Stopas gave us access to a lot of historical photos,” Muhlenbeck said.
They dot the walls with memories. From the lodge refurbishment, reclaimed wood covers other walls. In the Main Lodge Bar that greets visitors when they walk in, an original bar remains.
The frontline staff is a mixture of new and familiar faces.
Outside, three new snowcats have raised the standard of grooming. On opening day, the trails felt more consistent, helped by recent snow.
Also new this year is a terrain park just for fledgling riders.
The main park will benefit from new manager Mike Schuster, who spent the past nine years working on the terrain park in Vail, Colorado. On Wednesday, 11 features were open to riders. As the ski season progresses, Schuster said Wilmot’s park will expand to include as many as 60 features, ranging from rails to a combo feature known simply as “the wall.”
Wilmot also replaced the rope tows in the beginners’ area with conveyor lifts. The lifts are seen easily from the new ski school building, which was formerly the maintenance crew’s home.
“Ski school here was great, but they didn’t have [their own] base facility,” Ogilvie said. “We’ll be able to do full-day and multiday [ski school] programs now.”
The full-day lessons running from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. are a first for Wilmot in recent memory, Ogilvie said.
At night, the new energy-efficient LED lights will come on, allowing riders to see multiple turns in front of them.
Those are just the tangibles.
“[There’s a] renewed energy. Everyone who skis knows Vail. It’s a place you want to be a part of,” said Gary Lieder, Wilmot’s ski school director who has worked at Wilmot for 47 years.
The experience at Wilmot seems to have changed for the better, as one would expect, because Wilmot now is a hands-on commercial for Vail’s western destination resorts. That includes all that it entails, according to its critics: rising prices, a less free-wheeling atmosphere and ultimately, Vail Resorts’ requisite loyalty to shareholders as a publicly traded corporation.
Like Afton Alps, Minnesota, and Mount Brighton, Michigan, before it, Wilmot is part of Vail’s “urban resort strategy,” as Ogilvie put it, wherein an improved experience at a small ski area near an urban population center encourages trips to Vail’s destination properties.
It’s a designation not without its advantages.
“Because of the scale of the business, we’re looking at what the guest is doing in five years,” Ogilvie said. “We have the luxury of doing that. We have the size and capital to invest in a long-term way.”