After an especially rough year as a real estate appraiser for the city of San Francisco, Charles Crowder said he really needed a vacation.
Some in his position might have thought white sands and highballs, a Tuscan villa, perhaps a cruise. But Crowder, 49, packed up his twin daughters, Chelsea and Chaya, and drove to UCLA, where they stood last week in front of Kerckhoff Hall, listening to a perky student guide with a thick brown braid extol the virtues of the Westwood campus.
"This is a great vacation. Are you kidding?" Crowder said. "It's a beautiful sunny day, a beautiful campus . . . what else do you want?"
The grand campus tour has long been a ritual of the American college admissions cycle. Any fears the recession would change that were dispelled as schools -- including UCLA, Pomona College and Columbia University -- reported a strong start to this summer's campus visits.
"Despite the bad economy, campus visits are still an important part of the college selection process," said Tony Pals, a spokesman for the National Assn. of Independent Colleges and Universities.
In a concession to financial limits, some students are leaving one parent or siblings at home. But families want to share the experience, and many are combining tours with, or substituting them for, their summer travels.
"Campus tours are the new family vacation," said Bruce Poch, dean of admissions at Pomona College.
UCLA hosted 70,000 visitors from June 2008 to May 2009. With campus lore, cheesy jokes and heartfelt testimonials, the student guides do yeoman's work putting the university in its best light -- all while walking backward to face their audience.
A string of puns at the geology building -- "Professors rock, it's the favorite department by a landslide" -- is an audience pleaser, guides say. "If you string them together right, it's a classic," said student guide Katie Frost.
Occupational hazards include the occasional wayward mom "awkwardly hitting on" a male guide, they say. But most college tour scripts are numbingly similar, and information is not really the point. Students and their families are looking for that ineffable moment when, through some alchemy of atmosphere, setting or vibe, they suddenly know this is the place for them.
"They're just trying to see if they have that gut reaction," Poch said.
For aspiring filmmaker Ryan Carpenter, 17, of San Jose, it was UCLA's Italianate buildings and Los Angeles' fast pace that pushed the university to the top of his list.
"I'm really feeling this place," Ryan said.
Ryan and his friend, Dylan White, 17, came with Ryan's grandfather, Cliff Herlth, 59, who teaches at the boys' high school.
"I don't see him much out of school, so it was fun," Ryan said.
Megan Kelly, 17, of Encinitas, another filmmaker-to-be, arrived with her mother, Kris, 45, and pigtailed younger sister, Faith, 9. Faith, wearing sparkly turquoise sunglasses, seemed too young for the guide's explanation of the University of California's labyrinthine admission policies, but she was soon advising her sister.
"I see you sitting under a tree here," Faith told Megan.
Charles Crowder, who is divorced, said he cherished the time with his 16-year-old daughters, whose high test scores and grades should earn them their pick of colleges. The girls brought along Nia Allen-Lee of Sayreville, N.J., whom they met at a summer program for high-achieving students.
Crowder, like other parents on the tour, seemed to be having more fun than many students, who texted or stared vacantly into space as the guide continued to spiel.
His daughters, who spent most of their summers taking classes, volunteering or working, said they didn't begrudge the time away from vacation. But UCLA wasn't their first choice for college, they said.
The family is black, and the girls said they want a campus with a strong African American presence, like Columbia. Columbia's 2008 freshman class was 12.1% black, while this fall UCLA expects 4.7%, or 209, of its 4,459 freshmen to be African American.
Chelsea was turned off by discussion of large class sizes, while Nia, who is working this summer as a page for Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), said she preferred the atmosphere of political engagement at UC Berkeley. Nia was not impressed by the guide's description of a 1987 prank in which USC students released thousands of crickets inside the UCLA library.
"That's not even funny; it would mess up the books," Nia said.
By tour's end, however, the university had partly won over Chelsea.
"It's a nice campus," she said.
After a short break, the family was off to a second tour at USC. There, Crowder said, they ran into many of the same families they had seen on the UCLA tour.