Summer camp used to be simple. The kids went off for a week to Camp Cowabunga, where they learned to swim, paddle a canoe and make potholders.
Now most head for day camp as Mom and Dad head for work. Camp might be anything from an intensive week of gymnastics instruction to a two-week crash course in drama ending with a production of "Peter Pan."
Summer camp has changed with the times. With increasing numbers of two-income families, more day camps have sprung up not only to provide summer fun but also to fill a need for summertime day care.
Also, more camps are specializing. By the end of a week, Junior may not know a paddle from a potholder, but his tennis strokes could zing with precision.
In Ventura, the city's recreation department took the lead when it started offering specialized camps five years ago. A budding tennis great can get two weeks' worth of instruction and play for $120. Other weeklong sports camps offered by the city include volleyball, gymnastics, fitness and soccer. Not to mention beach camp--complete with sailing, windsurfing and volleyball.
If your kid isn't a sports nut, he can plunge into arts, dance and nature camps, or the popular "Camp Combo," which combines them all.
Travel camp buses kids daily to spots such as Universal Studios and the Santa Barbara Zoo. If roughing it sounds appealing, residence camp offers a five-day stay in cabins near Lake Cachuma in Santa Barbara County for $165.
The biggest hit is "Camp MTV," a mixture of music, theater and visual arts. Working two weeks under the direction of artist Caryn Cheney and musician Jan Palmer, 30 children, 7 to 12 years old, will produce "Snow White" this summer. They'll rehearse daily, prepare sets from old refrigerator cartons and help make costumes.
The specialized camps--which originated because parents no longer have the time to shuttle their children to lessons in one thing and another--fill up fast. Registration this year opens April 28.
Activities start at 9 a.m., "and parents get there at 7 a.m.," said Jenise Heck-Rosene, senior recreation leader for the camps. "A lot of parents say they wish they could go."
The camps run from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., from June 18 through Aug. 24. Kids frequently migrate from camp to camp all summer, spending a week at one camp and the next week at another.
Other Ventura County communities also offer daylong camps to accommodate working parents. Some are an extension of after-school programs, such as those offered by the Boys and Girls Clubs, but with a few added treats for summer fun.
At $45 a week, Oxnard's Camp Serendipity is the most inexpensive. The children swim, do arts and crafts, play sports and learn about drama. Boys and girls learn how to bake bread, prepare Italian and Mexican dishes and put together Mulligan stew.
Once a month, they visit Disneyland or Knott's Berry Farm. Each week, they're off to ride horses, stroll around the Santa Barbara Zoo or play miniature golf.
"For 90% of them, it's their first time horseback riding," said Michelle Izay, recreation supervisor for the city.
The Conejo Recreation and Park District in Thousand Oaks also offers a special day camp for emotionally or physically disabled children. Twelve children, ages 6 to 12, spend four days paddling around a pool, playing ball and, in general, doing what other kids do at summer camp.
"A lot of them are in wheelchairs," said Cindy Rocklein, recreation director for the therapeutic camp. "They play volleyball with a beach ball. Volunteers help move their arms. Nobody sits around."
Now that the children of baby boomers are swelling the camp-age population, more kids than ever are going to camp, according to Gary Abell, spokesman for the American Camping Assn. in Indianapolis. Five years ago, 4 million children across the country struck off for overnight or day camp. Last year, the number was up to 5 million.
Water sports, wilderness and fitness camps are big. But computer camp is history, according to Abell. Computers are more accessible now; they're used in schools, and the novelty has worn off.
In Thousand Oaks, Mitch Leichter first opened his Young Set Club to day campers seven years ago. The five-acre grounds include an Olympic-size swimming pool, a clubhouse with video games and an archery range--all in a rustic setting frequented by rabbits, squirrels and deer.
"It's the last of the dinosaurs in Thousand Oaks," Leichter said.
The camp is a big operation. About 150 to 200 kids are enrolled at a cost of $85 a week. An equal number drop in for swimming lessons daily. Leichter has a full-time staff of 25 to 35 counselors and 10 water instructors.
His campers take jaunts to Magic Mountain or Knott's Berry Farm. They go horseback riding. They compete in creative songfests once a week for the most energetic and inspired performances.
But the high point is an overnight camp-out on the grounds--complete with a visit from the legendary creature "Uncle Gor," an escaped "gorilla that supposedly lives nearby."