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Kids ski for free? Whee!

"Hey, Daddy, watch me ski!" shouted Danny Bender, 8, wobbling through a turn but successfully passing his sister, Nan, who is three years older.

Their parents, Joanne and Bill Bender of Dallas, paused to watch, delighted that their ski trip to Steamboat Ski Resort was such a hit. Both kids were happy and learning to make parallel turns. The previous day's storm had dropped 4 inches of fresh powder and the sun was shining.

Even their camera, which had refused to rewind not 30 minutes earlier, was cooperating. And the kids' lift tickets were free, a gift _ or a stroke of genius from the resort's marketing department.

"We had to buy two five-day lift passes ourselves, to get the free kids' tickets," said Joanne Bender. "But we'd planned to stay a week anyway . . . we decided to come while the kids are out of school."

Browsing the Internet, Bill Bender said, he found perhaps two dozen ski areas promising "kids ski and snowboard free," with no-cost, unrestricted lift passes for ages 5 and younger.

For those ages 7 to 17, most discounts came with restrictions, primarily blackout dates on holidays and during the traditional peak weeks for ski resorts _ mid February through mid March. Other offers were tied into hotel and airline packages.

But with same-day ticket window prices for "youths" now priced as high as $50, even small discounts were welcome.

"It's a great family sport," said Bill Bender, who grew up skiing in New Hampshire and wanted his kids to have the same experience. "But the prices creep up every year. If you want to keep doing it, you better check around for bargains."

Steamboat, in northwest Colorado, is just one of the resorts making it easier for parents to bring their kids to the slopes. Killington and Mount Snow in Vermont, Brighton and Snowbird in Utah, and Big Sky Resort in Montana are among those with similar deals, offering multiday lift passes to teens who ski with a paying adult.

"If the ski areas don't welcome the kids, they'll put themselves out of business," said Sam Hirsch, who was riding up in the gondola with the Benders. "Today's 10-year-olds are the skiers of the future. They'll be the ones buying lift tickets in 20 years. But they better keep them interested now."

Some of the best bargains _ the stay-and-ski free variety _ come from huge destination resorts, such as Steamboat, which either own or manage hundreds of inns and condominiums. Not only can these behemoths bundle lodging and lift tickets conveniently, but they're motivated to fill their rooms.

Sun Valley, for instance, in Ketchum, Idaho, tempts skiers to come to its spectacular but relatively remote location in central Idaho by creating affordable "ski weeks," with one price for lodging and lift tickets, and inviting kids up to 15 years old to share the fun for free.

The only caveat is that Sun Valley's main ski mountain, Baldy, is for intermediate and expert skiers only. If parents want some ski time with the kids, they have to spend part of their days on Dollar Mountain's bunny slopes.

At Smugglers' Notch, in northern Vermont, the five-night "Club Smuggler" lodging and lift ticket package (about $595 for adults and $495 for teens, free for ages 5 and younger) includes group lessons.

One of Vermont's premier family ski destination, Smugglers' has a top-rated weeklong kids' ski camp, an ice-skating rink, indoor pool, sleigh rides, twilight bonfires, evening entertainment and comfortable intermediate slopes.

Northstar-At-Tahoe, in central California, has a similar resort setup, with a pool, fitness center, cross country track and tubing hill, plus a residential area with one-, two- or three-bedroom rustic vacation cabins. When you rent one, you also get free lift tickets, at the rate of two per bedroom per day (weekdays only). Group ski lessons for intermediate or better skiers are also free.

Waterville Valley, in New Hampshire, a family mountain with lots of intermediate terrain, sometimes runs "special" ski-free offers for kids 12 and younger staying with their parents.

In fact, if you don't find a great deal right away, keep looking for bargains in newspapers and on the Internet. This month is a good time to decide. Every year, more skiers plan later, waiting for snow reports and midseason sales. If the weather's been chancy, or skier numbers are down by early January, mountain managers start worrying. That's when discounts appear.

After Winter Park, in Colorado's Front Range, got a couple of feet of snow on two days in mid January last year, the ski area trotted out a four-night lodging and lift ticket deal for two adults and two children ages 12 and younger for $182 per person. For the Benders, who live close enough to drive, it was too good to pass up.

"We took the kids out of school and treated ourselves," said Bill Bender. "We like last-minute surprises."

This year Winter Park is advertising a three-night, three-day "kids ski and stay free with parents" package for ages 6 to 13, good through March 9. The price for a family of four starts at $618, and must be booked through Winter Park Central Reservations (1-800-729-5813).

With so many choices, why did the Benders choose Steamboat? A big mountain, family activities, kid-friendly restaurants, free shuttle bus service into town and direct airline flights were deciding factors.

The resort has nearly 3,000 skiable acres, half rated for intermediates. The atmosphere is casual and there are many activities besides skiing, including Steamboat's famous hot springs, sleigh rides, tubing, trout fishing and cross country skiing. The mountain has several good restaurants, and there are more in town, a mile away.

Though Steamboat's lower mountain is awash in condos, the glut means lots of choice and competitive prices, especially in economy and middle-priced units. But to the Benders' disappointment, the luxury condos, perched on the hill above the Gondola, weren't lowering rates during the kids' Easter break holiday.

"We wanted to be able to ski out our door, but that wasn't in the budget," Joanne Bender said. "Seven hundred dollars a night? I don't think so. At least not yet."

Anne Z. Cooke and Steve Haggerty are freelance journalists living in Marina del Rey, Calif.

If you go

For the best all-around guidebook to ski resorts, try Ski and Snowboard America, by Charles Leocha (World Leisure Corp., $24.95). In the book, a team of writers reviews all large and most small ski resorts. There are no trail maps, but the guide provides so much detail that you will barely miss them. Order directly from www.worldleisure.com. Or look at the Web site, www.skiamericaonline.com, for trail maps, ski school, lodging and nightlife.

To learn more about the resorts mentioned above, call or check their Web sites:

+ Big Sky, Mont.: 1-800-548-4486; www.bigskyresort.com.

+ Brighton, Utah: 1-800-873-5512; www.skibrighton.com.

+ Killington, Vt.: 1-800-621-6867; www.killington.com.

+ Mount Snow, Vt.: 1-800-245-7669; www.mountsnow.com.

+ Northstar-At-Tahoe, Calif.: 1-800-466-6784; www.northstarattahoe.com.

+ Smugglers' Notch, Vt.: 1-800-451-8752; www.smuggs.com.

+ Snowbird Ski Resort, Utah: 1-800-453-3000; www.snowbird.com.

+ Steamboat Ski Resort, Colo.: 1-800-922-2722; www.steamboat.com.

+ Sun Valley Resort, Idaho: 1-800-786-8259; www.sunvalley.com.

+ Waterville Valley, N.H.: 1-800-468-2553; www.waterville.com.

+ Winter Park Resort, Colo.: 1-800-729-5813; www.winterparkresort.com/vacation.

Skiing can be a great family sport, and good deals help make it affordable. Steamboat Ski Resort in northwest Colorado is among the resorts that offer free lift tickets for children with a paying adult.

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