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A Smooth Ride Uphill

Now a staple at many ski resorts, this conveyor lift was almost left in the past

In 1990, Rocky Mountain Conveyor and Equipment, Inc. (RMCE) was approached by a daycare in Breckenridge, Colo., that needed a way to transport a group of kids up a small hill in a confined space so the kids could be taught how to ski.

This wasn’t a typical request. RMCE had been founded in 1982 in Denver as a mining equipment distribution company and was building conveyors for an American mining industry that topped out at five to six billion dollars. The company was used to transporting coal and hard rock, not kids on a ski hill.

“Frankly, we built that first one and for the next two years, we forgot about the product,” said Dave Kelly, president and co-founder of RMCE, who admits the company was still focused on mining at the time.

Then, in 1992, Vail Resorts, Inc. requested three conveyors to move people on their own ski hills – having seen what RMCE did for the daycare in Breckenridge – and the floodgates opened. Vail’s resort competitors followed suit and after a few tradeshow appearances, RMCE officially launched the first model of what it called Magic Carpet® Lifts – The Boardwalk®. Through their commitment to safety, technological innovation and ease-of-use, Magic Carpet® Lifts/RMCE, Inc. remains not only the originator, but a market leader in this space, serving the U.S., Canada, and international clients.

Prior to Magic Carpet® Lifts, the only way to get to the top of the smaller ski hills was to walk or use a rope-tow, but rope-tows presented their own unique challenges.

“One of the issues when using a rope-tow were ACL injuries to the instructors where one of the arms of the rope-tow would come down and catch them in the back of the knee,” said Kelly.

Before Magic Carpet® Lifts, ski schools were losing students every year because of the effort it took to learn the sport. Few people were willing to trudge up the slopes run after run, so many just gave up, which, according to Kelly, significantly impacted resort revenue. However, Magic Carpet® provides a unintimidating, skier-friendly way to get up the hill – where a moving belt is placed at snow-level to shuttle participants at a moderate and relaxing pace – giving them time to catch their breath before the next run. “One of the instructors at Vail Resorts, Inc. told us that students were picking up skiing about 30 percent faster once they started using the Magic Carpet® lifts,” said Kelly.

Eventually, the demand for these lifts became overwhelming enough that by 2000, Magic Carpet® Lifts had overtaken RMCE’s mining business. Now, conveyors are being used at waterparks, either as launch conveyors, which are placed at the top of a tower and will launch a tube or logride once everyone is properly seated or as a delivery mechanism floating an empty tube back to the start so guests don’t have to carry their tube to the beginning of the ride. This is one of the keys that allowed Magic Carpet® Lifts to grow so rapidly in the last two decades – innovations that allowed them to expand past the ski-hill market.

“As far as the amusement ride industry, they came to us because they couldn’t find a manufacturer that would build anything to load ride vehicles,” said Kelly. He also revealed the company is working with Universal Studios to develop conveyors with the proper electrical and safety controls that would match the speed of the ride vehicles going through the stations. “Typically, that would increase the capacity of the ride vehicles 20 to 30 percent, and it’s less wear and tear on the system,” said Kelly.

Innovations such as these are developed everyday. Not only is RMCE constantly improving the basic design of Magic Carpet® Lifts, but they are under secrecy agreements with many major players in the amusement industry. In the past, they’ve developed loading and unloading conveyors for The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, also at Universal Studios, along with conveyors for Busch Gardens and Cowabunga Bay.

There are a number of reasons the ski resort and amusement industries keep going back to Magic Carpet® to move their customers, not least of which is how easy their conveyors are to install and maintain. Though ski resort lifts require soft ground and a site engineer to do the geotechnical evaluation of where the lift will be placed, once that is done, the actual installation takes about one or two days, depending on the length of the conveyor.

“We use a type of construction called hook and rod,” said Kelly. “All our sections are pre-made, and they just hook to each succeeding panel, so you just place the head section and then you just build it up going down the hill.”

The head section contains all the power transmission, components, bearings, covers and the control panel necessary to run the moving belt. The electrical hook-up can be done concurrently with the installation of the conveyor, saving even more time. Plus, it’s easy to use. Only one person is required to operate lifts up to 400 feet long and only two people when the lift is greater than 400 feet long.

Finally, in the unlikely event that there’s a problem, RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts provides unlimited phone support for the life of unit. RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts keeps inventory of spare parts that customers can draw from and, since the majority of issues are primarily electrical, RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts has an in-house electrical team that’s always available for support and the suppliers that RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts buys from can provide additional support if needed.

“The training really is the responsibility of the owner,” said Kelly. “That being said, we give operations and maintenance manuals out where we try to outline all the pertinent parts of the B77 Standard related to operation of the unit.”

The B77 is the American National Standards Institute standard for the design, construction, operation and maintenance of ropeways, tramways, lifts and conveyors. If any updates to that standard are made, Magic Carpet® Lifts makes them available to its clients through email or its website.

While all Magic Carpet® Lifts are up to national standard, it is the high safety standards that keep ski resort and amusement clients coming back. RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts makes clear that all pedestrians of their lifts cannot go to the end of the lift and must step to the side when disembarking. They also make speed recommendations for safe operation. The electronic drives have also been changed to more sophisticated drives with higher levels of safety.

“Safety is a No. 1 concern for the ski industry and remains our top priority,” said Kelly. “To that end, all of our covers and hatches are locked or should be locked if the customer adds their own hatch. Our control panels are a performance level safety system, which is the highest-level safety system you can build into a control panel.” In addition, there are safety responsibilities for owners that RMCE/Magic Carpet® Lifts goes to great lengths to teach, holding safety seminars at tradeshows to all lift operations and maintenance personnel.

As for the future, many of the innovations Magic Carpet® Lifts will see come as a direct response to customer feedback. For example, over the past year, operators in Canada have been able to bring the lifts down to a very slow speed for easier cleaning and maintenance because they asked for it and Kelly is open to the possibility of that feature being implemented for all the lifts in coming years.

“Our future is bright,” said Kelly. “We’re proud of our product and we’re proud of the people who use it. The industries we serve are dynamic, for the enjoyment of people, and we’re just glad to be part of them. Personally, what makes me proudest of all over these past 30 years is the ‘psychic income’ of just knowing what we’re building and knowing how well it works.”