CONWAY — Although skiing remains the lure for most winter visitors to the Mount Washington Valley, lately there has been a trend to offer people other lures to come to this tourism-dependent region.
Ski resorts have added seasonal attractions like the canopy tour at Bretton Woods, ziplines at Attitash and Wildcat, the adventure park at Cranmore, and ice-skating at the Tohko Dome at King Pine.
“Having non-ski activities allows us to appeal to a wider audience,” said Becca Deschenes, director of marketing at Cranmore Mountain Resort. “We have seen our non-ski business continue to grow each year.”
Other non-ski area attractions recently launched winter operations to add to the region’s mix. This past November, Living Shores Aquarium opened next to Story Land, both of which are owned and operated by Palace Entertainment. It’s open daily year round, drawing a steady influx of visitors and also includes a restaurant, Pasta Mia.
And then there’s the Conway Scenic Railroad, which has also expanded its offerings — in the past, the 1974-founded railroad would cease winter operations after its “Steam on Snow” event in early January.
But this year, it added more Santa’s Express runs during the weeks leading up to and including Christmas vacation week, and owner David Swirk, along with newly hired marketing director/longtime rail enthusiast Brian Solomon and operations director Derek Palimieri have initiated a new Valentine’s Special — the Cupid’s Express — to run Feb. 14 with dinner trains at both 5:30 and 7:30 p.m.
They also are launching a special “Snow Train” to Attitash for February Vacation Weeks, Feb. 15-29, with departures from the North Conway station every 90 minutes, starting at 7:30 a.m. The last departure from North Conway will be at 4:30 p.m. and the last southbound train leaves Attitash at approximately 6 p.m.
Riders can take the round-trip for 90 minutes or spend the day at Attitash, skiing or dining at Matty B’s Mountainside Cafe. (The boarding ramp at Attitash is located behind Matty B’s.)
Attitash patrons, meanwhile (including guests at the Grand Summit), may want to ride the train to North Conway to shop and dine, without having to deal with holiday traffic.
“People will need to let us know what train they intend to return on when they board the train so we can have a sense — we can be flexible, but we need to have a general guideline,” said Solomon.
Both ventures are examples of the vision of Swirk to grow the business into a more year-round operation since he and wife Rhonda purchased the railroad two Januaries ago from Russ and Dot Seybold.
For Swirk, the goal for the venture — whether last summer’s Whitefield Air Show excursion, the Pumpkin Patch Rides or the extended Santa Claus Express rides — is to collaboratively grow the tourist excursion rail line’s business by working with fellow businesses along the line.
“The idea for the February snow trains came from our attending the Adventure Suites open house a few weeks ago and my talking with Joe Berry (proprietor/owner of the Eastern Slope Inn and Attitash Mountain Village),” said Swirk, this week in a joint interview with Solomon, who recently succeeded longtime marketing manager Susan Logan.
The collaboration fits with what Swirk hopes to achieve with every project.
“This is exactly in line with our original intent to work together with various businesses in the valley to support one another. It’s about connecting the dots (along the rail line, which has grown from its initial set of tracks from North Conway to Conway over the years to now include excursions in season to Bartlett and up the former Maine Central Mountain Division tracks through Crawford Notch),” said Swirk, who worked in Massachusetts in the railroad industry before coming to the valley.
“You’ve got the Conway Scenic working with the Eastern Slope Inn, Attitash Mountain Village and Attitash — and you can extend it out (for people coming from Attitash) to include the shops and restaurants in North Conway Village,” he said.
Swirk and Solomon hope the snow train excursions will enable guests to experience the fun of a snow train like those that ran from Boston and New York City to the mountains from the 1930s-50s.
Solomon — who is a walking encyclopedia of railroading knowledge — said rail fans will be excited to know that the snow trains feature the CSRR’s self-propelled RDC (rail diesel car), “The Millie,” built by Budd Rail Diesel in 1952. It includes a ski rack.
“It will be run as a single car; however, should demand warrant it, we have the capability of adding more cars,” said Solomon.
Round-trip snow train tickets are $26 for adults and $17.50 for children (ages 4-12). Children under age 4 ride free, but they do need a ticket.
For more information, go to conwayscenic.com or call (603) 356-5251.