Lounging on a lush, rolling lawn at a Conejo Valley music camp, 13-year-old Joel Mankey describes Ventura County as a veritable paradise of leisure, with sports, culture and fun at every turn.
"I've lived here all my life, and there has never been a shortage of things to do," said the Thousand Oaks youth, taking a break from flute practice. "Some people just don't want to do them."
But 14-year-old Rodrigo Flores tells a different story as he slouches on a concrete bench outside the Centerpoint Mall in south Oxnard, waiting for a bus ride home and wondering what, if anything, he can do for kicks.
"I think Ventura County sucks," Rodrigo said. "There is hardly anything for teen-agers to do."
Taken as a whole, recreation in Ventura County is a remarkably diverse tapestry of Little League teams and art clubs, Boy Scout packs and dance troupes.
The variety is no accident, but the result of a concerted effort by many Ventura County parents to become active in sports and arts programs and ensure that their children have a rewarding childhood.
But recreation '90s style carries a big, growing price tag. Due to shrinking tax dollars and donations, children now have to pay to play--even for the most basic private and city-sponsored sports and leisure activities.
Increasingly, only the haves can afford to have fun.
According to The Times Poll, 84% of the county's parents rated local parks and recreation facilities as good or excellent--95% in the affluent east county, where government recreation programs are ranked among California's best.
"There's a lot of recreation in Simi Valley," said Denise Esswein, who has already enrolled her daughters Monica, 4, and Shannon, 3, in ballet and tap dance classes through the Rancho Simi Parks and Recreation District.
"They're reasonably priced, and they always have special activities during the holidays," she said. "I'm completely happy with what there is to do here."
The poll, however, found that only 18% of parents earning less than $20,000 a year, and 41% of those earning between $20,000 and $40,000, said they could afford all the leisure activities in which their children want to participate.
Thirty-seven percent of Ventura County families make less than $40,000 a year, according to U. S. census figures.
"My three sons like sports, but a working family cannot afford all this equipment and fees," said Juan Parra of Oxnard, a 42-year-old forklift driver who said he could not pay for any of the activities his children have requested.
Furthermore, poor and affluent teen-agers find agreement in one overriding complaint: There is nowhere they can go at night to hang out and socialize.
"As a teen-ager in Simi Valley, the only place to hang out at night is Denny's," 17-year-old Lauren McAuliffe said. "There's more coffee shops popping up, and some of them have poetry readings, but there's not much to do at all."
Consequently, some teen-agers and parents say, adolescents who have outgrown spending Friday nights at home have few alternatives to turn to except drugs, booze and mischief to escape the small-town blues.
"The teen years are when people begin to socialize, and it's frightening to think that our kids are learning to socialize getting drunk in the Ventura River bottom," said Phil Taggart of Ventura, who ran the now-defunct Insomniac Cafe after his work days at Patagonia to give his kids somewhere safe to go.
Taggart said the Insomniac closed because teen-agers hung around the Ventura coffeehouse without buying anything--a common gripe among entrepreneurs who try to cater to young people.
Since then, numerous cafes have sprung up in downtown Ventura, including the pastel-colored Two West, which keeps its doors open well past midnight on weekends--attracting rambling teens in droves.
The Ventura Boys & Girls Club keeps its doors open until 9 p.m. on weekends, hoping to give young people a safe place to gather. And in Thousand Oaks, the plush Teen Center stays open until 10 p.m.
Yet many teen-agers still complain they have nothing to do.
The problem, experts say, is that the very qualities that parents look for in a place to raise children--quiet and security within carefully tended enclaves--drive adolescents up the wall.
Take, for instance, Mike, Pat and Cesar, three 15-year-old punk rock fans from east Ventura.
The bright, gangly teens--the very picture of nonconformity--spend their days belting out unruly political songs in Pat's garage, smoking cigarettes and talking about how they would rather be anywhere but in staid old Ventura.
"Sometimes you think it's cool to live in Ventura 'cause you think it's quiet, but other times you feel so bored you wish you were somewhere else," said Cesar, his dyed black hair spiked in clumps.
"Sometimes I wish I was somewhere more exciting, instead of watching old people drive by," Pat said.
Uptight neighbors, Pat said, complained to police about an "awful noise" emanating from his garage, so the future of their jam sessions is in jeopardy.