Blue team members celebrate a win in Color Wars at Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)
Beneath the massive trees of the Malibu mountains, four small groups of people clad head-to-toe in red, green, yellow or blue stand around several long tables playing a heated game of flip cup.
"Get it, blue!" a young woman shouts into a bullhorn.
"You got this, green!" hollers another.
It looks a little like a frat house basement dragged into the light of day, but this competition is much more innocent. It's part of Adult Color Wars, a weekend designed to give adults a chance to relive their days at camp. It's a chance to recapture, says founder Jennifer Rheuban, a fleeting childhood moment of no responsibilities, no school walls and the freedom to explore the person you were and the person you hoped to become.
"Camp is one of the most transformative things in a child's life," says Rheuban, southwest regional manager for a local winery.
Rheuban is an L.A. native who grew up going to Camp JCA Shalom in Malibu. She launched Adult Color Wars in October of 2011 after the idea for the program came to her as she was comparing her experience at camp to her experience out in the world as a grown-up.
"I spent 12 summers at overnight camp," she says. "I'm in my 30s now, and there are fewer opportunities to socialize in ways that aren't just going to a bar or going to dinner. I thought, OK, I want to get back to camp."
Rheuban got permission to hold the event there twice a year, then began recruiting friends and acquaintances to join her. For a day or two in April and October, people can play tug of war, toss water balloons and compete in relay races, as well as eat with old and new friends and shellac themselves in their team colors.
This year, Rheuban had 50 campers.
Adult Color Wars is meant to mimic the summer camp experience as closely as possible, but it's far from the only getaway for the 21-and-over set. Michele Branconier, the executive director for the Southern California and Hawaii region of the American Camp Assn., says more grown-ups are heading to camp.
"Adult camps are on the rise," she says. "Camp is that one environment that provides a primary experience, authentic human connections, and you get the opportunity to be outdoors and connect with other human beings."
Branconier says there are about 400 adult camps in the country, 24 in the Southern California and Hawaii region. Some give people the chance to live out fantasies of becoming a rock star, an astronaut or a sommelier.
That so many getaways for grown-ups should be popping up right now isn't surprising, says Karen Sternheimer, a sociologist at USC who specializes in popular culture. Most of us are tethered to technology, and the opportunity to take a break from it comes as not just welcome but necessary.
And adult camp isn't just about saying goodbye to your iPhone or telling your co-workers to take care of things themselves. Young adults now have a period of time, often a decade or longer, between finishing college and getting tied down to marriage and kids.
"I think at a very basic level, there's more of a nostalgia for a sense of lost childhood today with people, especially in their 20s and 30s, than people might have had a couple generations ago," says Sternheimer. "People delay having kids longer, and so they can have kind of a throwback weekend or day that they don't have responsibility."
Sternheimer also notes that this generation has something others before it might not have had: disposable income.
For a number of Adult Color Wars campers, the event is also a chance to reconnect with old friends and make new ones. (Camp is not a singles event, and even though it's held at a Jewish camp, it's for everyone, Rheuban says.)
"Showing up today makes it easy to meet new people and have a good time," says Zachary Rosenberg, a 31-year-old lawyer who lives in downtown L.A. "I was really looking forward to that as well as to hanging out with some people I already know."
"Camp was everything I looked forward to during the summer," says Josh Ziel, 33, is a reality TV producer from Sherman Oaks. "It's just so much fun. Everybody is so strict now with their work schedules, and with Adult Color Wars, for two weekends a year you get the opportunity to come out and be a kid, play tug-of-war, do a water balloon toss…it's hard not to fall in love with this."
Adult Color Wars costs $55 for a day, or $195 for the weekend. Rheuban donates the bulk of what she makes to a camp scholarship fund.
Meanwhile, back under the hanging branches of Malibu, campers are gathered in a small outdoor amphitheater to listen to Rheuban give instructions for writing the team songs they'll perform at the end of the day. As the groups get up to leave, they pass beneath a wooden sign strung over a bridge.
In hand-painted letters, it reads, "You are now leaving a magical place."