Since I consider Whistler Blackcomb to be my home mountain, I have reviewed my skiing and snowboarding experience in past reviews here and here. However a major change is transforming this ski area after the purchase by Vail Resorts in 2017, and my last visit earlier in 2019 showed some immediate changes to the resort.
Under new management, the resort has become a hive of activity and let’s start off with 2 of the biggest changes. First of all there is now a new gondola from the base of Blackcomb at Upper Village. Prior to this, both gondolas starts from Whistler Village. With 2 of the prime hotels (Fairmont and Four Seasons) located in the Upper Village it makes sense to have a gondola at that base.
The new Blackcomb Gondola replaces both the Wizard Express chairlift and the Solar Coaster Express so while skiers in the past had to disembark from the chairlift to transfer to another one to get to the Rendezvous Lodge or Peak-2-Peak from the Upper Village, now they have a direct gondola upload. This was definitely a marked improvement and should speed things up.
Another improvement is the new 4-seater Catskinner Express chairlift that replaces the slower 3-seater Catskinner chair. This area serves the black Catskinner run and the terrain park in Blackcomb side.
In addition to the investments in lift infrastructure, the slopes seems to have better signage now. As the largest ski area in North America with plenty of downhill pistes, the signs to access the gondolas have been better marked. This is definitely helpful for first time visitors to Whistler from skiers who usually ski at Vail’s other resorts.
Another good thing out of the Vail acquisition is that season skiers who buy a pass for the whole season can get a better deal through the Epic Pass which is the season pass that provides unrestricted access to all of Vail’s ski properties worldwide. An Epic Pass costs around $920-950 with taxes when purchased earlier and can go to about $1000 later in November. Still that translates to around C$1,250-1,300 which is lower than what Whistler Blackcomb charges for their own season pass. Thus for skiers who spend more than 20 days skiing the mountain, it actually becomes cheaper.
Naturally with the investments and the acquisition costs, Vail has got to increase ticket prices and one day lift tickets can set skiers back C$140 (~$108) which might not be the most expensive but it definitely was a large increase from past season, and makes it less value for money when compared to some ski resorts in the European Alps.
The higher cost of lift tickets means that there are less skiers on the weekdays from locals and it is unlikely to see crowds if the snow conditions are not prime. During my 10 day visit to Whistler, there were basically no one at the base of some chairlifts, but after an overnight snow dump, the queue at the base can take 40 minutes or up to an hour. This does cause a lot of cyclical skier visits throughout the season and on powder days, the lift infrastructure in Whistler is still unable to cope with the crowds.
What I have seen instead in the village is that there are some changes in the store mix in the village, and there is the potential for big brand name stores occupying the retail pedestrian mall strip. That does not really bode well for local retail which will be pushed to the periphery into the Creekside area or further north in Pemberton.
One of the most disappointing changes was that there are no longer any stalls retailing Beavertails (a kind of fried pastry) that makes for a satisfying and interesting Canadian local snack. The Beavertails counter by the Olympic Station now retails grilled cheese instead, so it was disappointing as I was craving for some Beavertails.
While there are some improvements in lift infrastructure, it comes at a hefty cost for skiers who probably comes down to visit for a few days throughout the season or for the casual skier from Vancouver that skies for a couple of weekends in a year. Instead, as Vail pushes for skiers to travel to maximize the value of the Epic Pass, hotel room rates have risen considerably due to the growing number of visitors. This adds further to the costs of a ski vacation in Whistler for everyone while alienating local skiers who have long supported Whistler. As I look back at the ski resorts I have visited, I realized the only other one I visited that was owned by Vail was Beaver Creek. And I did not really like Beaver Creek that much as other ski resorts I have skied at in the United States. Thus I fear that Whistler will go down that path.
In my last review of Whistler Blackcomb, I made a note of how it is akin to the ‘Disney World’ for skiers, in that it offers a convenient spot for entertainment with plenty of activities, food, fun and laughter aside from the skiing. However as a package for skiers, I think it lacks some attractiveness since there are plenty of other good ski resorts and areas that might make better financial sense. Decreasing skier numbers have been a malaise that can be attributed to a shorter ski season, unpredictable weather patterns due to climate change and of course the increasing costs of a ski vacation. Thus I am not sure if making Whistler become a more expensive yet standardized ski destination is the way to go. Some of my memorable ski trips have been because there was the ability to try out local delights and partake in local activities. Think of having maple candies made from the snow in Quebec, and visiting an elk refuge in Wyoming as things that one could do even on a ski trip. Whistler is becoming less of that and instead becoming just another one of Vail’s ski resorts.
At the moment, the nail is not yet in the coffin for Whistler since Vail has really ambitious plans as it seeks to increase the pedestrian mall into Upper Village, thus linking the Blackcomb base with the Whistler base. This might increase retail space and hopefully they could attract local British Columbia brands or dining concepts instead of making it just to cater to Vail’s current mix of skiers, as I do not want to ski at a cookie-cutter ski resort.