I'm not trying to backhand make an argument, but it will probably come out that way because I love the experience of skiing at smaller ski areas. I genuinely want to get some discussion as to why people choose to ski where they do.
I'm an economist, and I find myself drawn to asking the "why" questions trying to understand human behavior, and I'm not really sure I understand the motivation people have for spending extra $$$ to ski at at lot of the mega-resorts. To me, I've come to the realization that its just not worth the extra money. I wonder both in terms of the day skier and the person taking a long ski vacation from somewhere else.
A little bit of my background that probably colors my viewpoint- I've been Colorado skiing for 30 years. I grew up in Colorado Springs, which means as a kid I skied a LOT of Summit County, Winter Park, and Monarch. As a kid, I liked skiing places with High-speed lifts, but that was when I was also skiing 95% groomed runs, and IMPORTANTLY, wasn't buying my lift tickets. I also think the crowds were less in the 1980's-1990 as well.
Virtually all of my skiing exposure is to Colorado, which is also probably important. I understand in a lot of other areas, the mega resorts may very well have the best snow, terrain etc., which certainly seems to change the nature of the argument.
As an adult, my favorite ski areas are Monarch, Loveland, and Sunlight, which happens to be my home mountain now that I live in Rifle, CO. I really want to get to Wolf Creek, but it just hasn't happened. At the same time, my thoughts on the large ski areas ranges from despise (Keystone and Vail) to begrudgingly put up with for the terrain (Aspen). My best ski memories and days skiing are ALWAYS at the small areas, and it is far from just a cost thing.
So, I'm just trying to figure out why it seems so many people see things the other way, and are willing to put up with $100 lfit tickets (or $1000 season passes vs. $300 season passes) $20 parking to ride a 30 minute shuttle to the lifts, $10 beers, etc. To me, the skiing experience is in many/most ways WORSE at a larger resort, let alone the huge monetary difference.
To define the argument, I consider small ski areas places like Loveland, Monarch, Arapahoe Basin, Wolf Creek, Sunlight, Eldora, Powderhorn, etc. Less than 2000 acres, largely without high speed lifts, limited or no base development.
I consider a large ski area to be places like Vail, the Aspen areas, Breck, Keystone, Winter Park, Steamboat, Telluride. Characterized by large mountains, gondolas and high-speed lifts, large base developments, and in many cases the airport that would not be there if the ski area didn't exist.
So, in looking at it by category, I come up with the following categories, and my feelings as to which offers the better skiing experience.
Snow amount/quality: Certainly one of the most important criteria for where I ski- most of the places I ski because of anywhere I can drive for day skiing, they get the best snow. Many of the ski areas that get the most snow in Colorado are the smaller ski areas (Wolf Creek, Loveland, Monarch). But it seems that there is not a lot of correlation between the amount of natural snow and the popularity- both Vail and the Aspen resorts get pretty mediocre amounts of snow compared to a lot of other places, and there are a lot of small ski areas that don't get a ton of snow (Sunlight is one, with about 250" a year).
However, in my eyes, what is equally as important as the amount of snow is the number of people skiing it. I skied Steamboat over the weekend, it had been snowing all week, and Sunday opened to 9" of snow on top. I was floored at how quickly it skied out, and how quickly it became necessary to get well into the trees to get fresh snow. At Sunlight or a Monarch, a day like my day at Steamboat would mean I could get good tracks pretty much all day, and quality loose snow on some of the less travelled named run for a few days after.
So, in my eyes, in terms of being able to ski fresh pow, I'll take a 12" day at a Monarch over a 12" day at a Vail any day.
Terrain: In my eyes, a very mixed bag. I don't think large ski areas intrinsically have better terrain, or more extreme terrain, than smaller areas. I love bowl skiing. I love the terrain at Aspen Highlands. But I also love Monarch and Arapahoe Basin, and really like the Bowl Skiing at Monarch. I love steeps. I enjoyed skiing the chutes at Steamboat, but not markedly more so than The Heathen at Sunlight.
A lot of the larger resorts certainly didn't get popular because if their terrain. Keystone is a pretty weak mountain. Steamboat is pretty gentle aside from the chutes and the hike-to stuff. I don't think very highly of Vail's terrain. For every big mountain with killer terrain, there is one that doesn't have a lot to offer, and there are plenty of small mountains with rocking lines.
I think the exception is mogul skiing. Mary Jane moguls are tough to beat, and the only small-ski area moguls that I think can even be named as remotely similar are those in the Pali area of Arapahoe Basin. With most small ski areas, there just is not enough people skiing a run to get the giant moguls grown- by the time they get going, a big storm comes in to wipe them out.
Speed of lifts/lift lines: Obviously the hallmark of large ski areas is high-speed lifts. High speed lifts in and of themselves are lovely, and if there are no lines at the high speed lift, they mean you get more ski time and less lift time. Great. But, high speed lifts also tend to come with lift lines, which make it not so great. This seems to be pretty mixed bag depending on where you are skiing- at Steamboat this weekend, I never had to wait more than a few minutes to grab a lift. At Vail/Breck/Keystone and many other places, I've had nightmare lines. At Sunlight? NEVER. Lines happen at Monarch, but they just don't hold a candle to a 25 minute maze mess at some of the larger areas. I also have mixed opinions about high speed lifts as they often took the place of several low-speed lifts, which served to disperse people more evenly around the mountain. Skiing large resorts commonly means that even if I find a run with great, fresh snow, I have to ski some bottleneck run with 1000's of skiers an hour turning it into an unfun mess to get back to the lift. I liked Keystone much better before they tore out virtually all of their fixed-grip lifts.
Quality of grooming: Big ski areas groom more, and in most cases, I think they groom better. However, a lot of the big area ski runs get so much traffic that any semblance of grooming is gone before noon, with spraped sections everwhere and prot-moguls everywhere else. A lot of the smaller mountains will still have spots of corduroy at last chair. At Monarch, Sunlight, and a lot of the other smaller ski areas, the regularly groomed runs are only groomed every other day, and if there has been no snow, at the end of the ungroomed day, they will still be in better shape than what I've seen a few hours in at the big areas.
Food: Probably better (or at least a better selection), and much more expensive, at a bigger ski area. I think this one comes down purely to what your preferences are.
Apres Ski: If this means drinking a beer to end your day, I like the vibe of a little ski area where you know a lot of the folks there, and the folks serving you. If this means paying a ridiculous amount of money to eat at the restaurant at the top of the gondola, or at some boutique place in the fake swiss village at the base, I guess the big resort has it.
Lodging: Its hard to argue with ski in/ski out lodging, and many of the little ski areas in Colorado lack it because they are on 100% forest service land. Getting off slopeside, I think it boils down to personal preferences between costs and quality. Some small ski areas have towns nearby with both good and cheap places to stay, some just have cheap places that may not be so nice, and most probably don't have the full on 4 star treatment. Some big ski resorts have really nice expensive places, others just have really expensive places.
Ease of actually day skiing there (or skiing there without on-mountain accomodations): Big edge to the little places. At Sunlight, we gripe when we have to walk more than 75 feet to get to the lodge from the parking lot. Ski resorts that don't even offer free parking piss me off enormously. I don't enjoy having to take a shuttle bus from the parking lot to the mountain, but accept it. However, a ski area that makes me walk 1/2 mile in ski boots carrying my gear through their bullshit Swiss Village AFTER I GET OFF THE BUS makes me want to punch the developer in the dick until they need serious medical attention. Seriosly, fuck you.
Access: I think the big areas have an edge here, because they tend to have an airport built for them. If you are driving, or are driving from a major airport instead of paying $$$ to fly in to the little strip around the megaresort, It seems a toss-up. You have to drive past a lot of ski areas to get to Steamboat from Denver, ditto Vail, ditto Aspen.
So.. What do people think? For those that have a strong preference for big or small, why?