It doesn't take much marketing genius to tell 11-year-old Austin Pitts of San Clemente why this year's ski season is different.
"Snow -- there's more snow," said the young snowboarder as he looked out across the sugar-coated hills of the Mountain High ski resort near Wrightwood this week.
That's exactly what California's ski resorts like to hear -- and see -- especially after several years of drought and sluggish business.
Heavy December snows were a welcome Christmas present for ski operators from the San Gabriel Mountains through the Eastern Sierra to Lake Tahoe. And with forecasters predicting a continued wet winter on the West Coast -- despite this weekend's expected sunny skies and warm temperatures -- the resorts are optimistic about the current ski season.
"I don't think we have had this much snow at this time of year since 1996," said Julie Maurer, vice president of marketing and sales for Booth Creek Resorts, which owns the Northstar-at-Tahoe and Sierra-at-Tahoe ski areas on the California side of Lake Tahoe.
Overall, skiing and snowboarding travel represents a relatively small slice of the California economy, accounting for at most 2% of the state's $75-billion tourism industry. Big Bear mountain resort in the San Bernardino Mountains, for example, has about 1,000 total hotel and motel rooms -- an amount matched by the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim alone.
Yet for California's mountain communities, having visitors come and partake in winter recreational sports is crucial to the health of their economies.
"It has been just a great Christmas season for us this year," said Shelley Wijnhammer, manager of the family owned Lumber Jack Cafe not far from the Snow Summit ski area in Big Bear. "The last good season like this was in '97-'98. It's been quite a few years."
The Golden State's 38 alpine and cross-country resorts attract about 7.5 million visitors annually -- almost all of them Californians -- and generate about $350 million in ticket sales, according to the California Ski Industry Assn.
The industry has seen little growth in the last five years, although traffic is up sharply -- by about 1 million more lift tickets sold -- from a decade ago. That rise reflects an expansion of resorts around the state and improved snow-making equipment that creates skiable conditions regardless of weather, according to Bob Roberts of the ski industry group.
But this season, nature hasn't needed much man-made help.
December storms dumped 27 inches of natural snow at Mountain High, more than half of the 40 inches for all of last year, said John McColly, the resort's marketing director.
At Mammoth Mountain, the state's busiest ski resort, more than 140 inches of snow fell last month, the third-highest December total in its 49-year history.
Advance bookings for the 450 hotel rooms owned by Mammoth Mountain Ski Area for the first three months of this year are running 25% ahead of last year, said Kellie Hines, a company spokeswoman. The rest of the town, which has about 5,000 condominium units and rooms for rent, is 10% ahead of last year, according to the Mammoth Lakes Visitors Bureau.
Elsewhere, snowy conditions are providing benefits to local communities earlier than usual. Typically, November and December account for just 10% to 15% of the ski business.
"We have up to 10 feet of snow on the ground, and both resorts are in full operation," said Maurer of Booth Creek.
At the Northstar and Sierra resorts, sales of season passes, which cost as much as $679 depending on the number of blackout dates, are running 200% ahead of last year. After a slow Thanksgiving and early December, bookings for Booth Creek's 1,500 hotel rooms at Tahoe made up lost ground and ended about 2% ahead of the prior December, Maurer said.
Nature's good fortune made it all the way down to the San Bernardino Mountains, which had only 3 feet of snowfall for all of last year. Already, several ski areas are reporting at least that amount on many runs.
Mid-December storms blanketed the Bear Mountain and Snow Summit ski resorts in Big Bear, reducing their traditional reliance on snow-making equipment to open for the holidays.
"In Southern California, you can't ask for anything better than being 100% open by Christmas," said Brad Farmer, spokesman for Bear Mountain Resorts, which owns the two ski areas.
"The more of the mountains we can open, the more lift tickets we can sell."
The snow coverage also gave Southern California resorts a free -- and dramatic -- source of advertising in the form of spectacular city views of snowcapped peaks, said Julie Praytor, 18, a resort host and Wrightwood resident. If city dwellers "look up and see snow on the mountains, they'll want to come up here," she said. "That helps a lot."
Already, locals like Praytor have noticed the spike in business, which she measured in terms most Southern Californians can relate to: traffic. Although she lives only seven miles from the resort, it takes her an hour to get home.
It is a problem local merchants are glad to have.
"We could not have done any better," said Tom Johnson, general manager of the 150-room Northwoods Resort & Conference Center about a mile from Snow Summit in Big Bear. "We are probably running 15% ahead of last year for the season.
"The whole town has seen it," Johnson said. "The whole village is packed. People are shopping. Hopefully it will stay that way."
Of course, he and the industry executives are ever mindful of how fickle a friend the weather can be. It won't be until February or March -- "the real winter" -- that California snowbirds and ski operators really will find out how snow-filled their new year will be.
Austin Pitts and his family don't plan to wait.
Austin and his 14-year-old sister, Casondra, joined their dad, Jon, a 43-year-old contractor on the trek from southern Orange County to Mountain High 18 times last year.
Although that's far more trips to the mountains than typical Southern California skiers make annually, it was a disappointment for the avid Pitts family. They hit the slopes 28 times in the 2000-01 season, when the snow was more plentiful.
"When we see a storm coming in, we'll typically try to make plans coming up here because it's so convenient, so close," said Laury Pitts, Austin's mother. "We're planning to take some days off during the week when it's slow. Just don't tell their teachers."