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Where wintry weather is welcome news

Bitterly cold weather in many parts of the U.S., coupled with the media attention surrounding the mega-blizzard in the Buffalo area of Western New York, is putting people in the mood to ski and snowboard. And that's an autumn gift for winter resort operators.

Many have opened early this year, and thanks to the cool temperatures they're cranking up production of artificial snow to meet the surging demand from winter sports enthusiasts. The industry, not surprisingly, is pleased with the hand Mother Nature has dealt them.

"This kind of brings the spotlight to wintertime," Michael Berry, the head of the National Ski Areas Association, told CBS MoneyWatch. "We can make a lot of snow. The cold weather obviously makes than a lot easier."

Winter sports is big business. The National Ski Areas Association estimates that that Americans spent more than $7 billion last season at winter resorts. Another trade group, the SnowSports Industries America, estimates that they spent another $3.6 billion on apparel and equipment. Winter resorts recorded about 56.5 million skier and snowboarder visits last season, figures that were hurt by drought conditions affecting resorts in moisture-starved California.

"It's a great time to be in the ski business," said Randy Holden, a spokesman for Windam Mountain Resorts in New York's Catskill Mountains. "Today is the earliest opening day that we have had in 10 years. We have more snow and more terrain being offered on opening day than ever before. ... The skiers are here. They are super-happy"

Season pass sales at Windham are up "exponentially," and spending is "at an all-time high," he said.

His comments were echoed by Vail Resorts (MTN), the largest publicly traded winter resort operator, which noted in a Nov. 14 press release that "winter is alive and well in Colorado." In it, Vice President Pat Campbell said: "We could not be more excited about this new snow as our resorts are opening."

Deals abound for vacationers. The Olympic Regional Development Authority, which operates three resorts in New York, is offering beginning skiers and snowboarders a three-day package of lessons and rentals for $169. Vermont's Bolton Valley resort is offering special deals for owners of Subaru and Hyundais.

"This is new to us," said spokesman Jon Lundin, who added that the response to the offer has been strong.

The good times for the ski industry may continue. Forecasters from AccuWeather are calling for above-normal snow totals this winter for much of the country. The Midwest will have a rough winter, though not as bad as last year, while the wintry precipitation won't be enough to alleviate California's extreme drought.

Good skiing weather, however, may not translate into ideal conditions for the shares of all ski resort operators. Peak Resorts (SKIS), whose 13 properties include Hidden Valley Ski Resorts, flopped in its recent initial public offering. A company spokesperson couldn't be reached for comment. However, Vail Resorts' shares have slalomed their way to a 13 percent gain this year.

Correction: We have corrected a numerical error in the fourth paragraph.