Camp can bring out the best in you — or it can leave you speechless.
“Dead men can’t talk,” says a 12-year-old boy behind a Darth Vader-like mask. As a half dozen fellow secret agents continue to battle for possession of an old Western town, he sits on a log in the dead zone, fingering the trigger of his paintball gun.
Between the paintball, parasailing, hot rock massages and headshots, Pali Overnight Adventures is nothing like the summer camp you knew.
“It’s like Universal Studios,” says camp director Barry Vigon, pointing to the storefront facades on the 10-acre paintball course. “What kid wouldn’t love this?”
Pali is the brainchild of Andy Wexler, who also founded Los Angeles Family magazine. What began in 1990 as a Pacific Palisades day camp is now a dozen specialty camps on Lake Arrowhead that generate $3 million in revenue.
Campers spend their mornings in the specialty of their choice, which can include Secret Agent, Culinary, Hollywood Stunt, Rock Star or Spa & Well-Being. Afternoons are devoted to electives such as horseback riding, archery or table tennis.
Cabins and campfire songs are supplemented by ATVs, Final Cut Pro and 40-foot stunt jumps from the infirmary roof. However, no one misses the weenies and marshmallows; instead, there’s sushi lunches and Nutella crepes.
“It’s utopia,” says counselor and environmental science major Becca Kirlin. “Utopia with serious toys, but utopia.”
In 1974, camp didn’t need as many bells and whistles to satisfy Joe Escalante, who later became bassist for punk band the Vandals, an attorney and morning DJ for Indie 103.1. He spent eight summers at a traditional co-ed camp, Mountain Meadow Ranch in the eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains. After four seasons as a camper, he returned as a ranch hand.
Now 43, he still keeps in touch with alumni like NoFX vocalist “Fat Mike” Burkett and actress Tracy Nelson.
“At home, it was marbles or ‘ditch ’em.’ You had three channels, all in reruns for the summer,” says Escalante. “I begged to go the whole summer.”
Some may disdain specialty camps as a reaction to a whiz-bang, XBox culture. However, for some of the 6.5 million kids who will go to camp this summer, they’re a necessity.
“Many parents aren’t comfortable leaving their older kids at home to do whatever they want anymore,” says Jeffrey Solomon, executive director of the National Camp Assn. “Teens may not look at a traditional camp as very cool, but they like scuba diving in the Caribbean.”
However, with every deep-sea expedition comes the challenge of finding counselors with the requisite expertise. At Pali, that often means hitting up the industry.
Vigon is a writer/producer whose credits include “Soap,” “Roseanne,” “Veronica’s Closet,” as well as appearances on “Seinfeld” and “Sabrina, the Teenage Witch.” Hollywood Stunt camp is lead by Dean Cudworth, a stunt man and actor who just wrapped Columbia Pictures’ “Next” starring Nicolas Cage. Michael French, owner of Burbank recording studio Down to Hear, heads up Rock Star.
Says Amy Bender, a counselor and a film student at the University of Rochester, “(Campers) sometimes make better films in a week than we do in a month.”
Not every specialty camp peddles fantasy. Elisabeth Donati, founder of Santa Barbara-based Money Camp for Kids, sees it as her opportunity to change the world. The five-day camp teaches financial literacy — including investment principles and risk assessment — for kids ages 10 to 17.
“We always have at least a couple that drop out,” says Donati. “I think the parents wimp out and don’t have the balls to make them come back.”
Rise and shine, campers!
Kids are born with major power, curiosity and potential,” says Money Camp for Kids founder Elisabeth Donati. Variety Weekend went looking for camps to satisfy inquisitive minds, whether they’re looking to shoot their first feature or excel at the finer art of shaving cream raids.
Specialties: Twelve, including acting, film, rock star, secret agent, photography and fashion design
Extras: Bungee-trampoline, kayaking, go-carts, fencing, target shooting
Tuition: $1,485 for one week, $2,895 for two weeks
Mountain Meadow Ranch Summer Camp
Eastern Sierra Nevada Mountains
Specialty: The classic summer camp; expect horsemanship, archery, canoeing and team sports
Extras: Overnight and off-campus archeology, fishing and backpacking trips
Tuition: $950 for one week; $2,650 for three weeks
Money Camp for Kids (nonprofit day camp)
Santa Barbara; satellite camps include Calabasas, Thousand Oaks and Ojai
Specialty: Financial literacy
Extras: Field trips to the bank and local businesses
Tuition: $100-$259 depending on the session
Mt. Hood Summer Ski Camp
Government Camp, Oregon
Specialty: Freestyle, snowboarding, racing
Extras: Rockclimbing, white-water rafting, trampoline, windsurfing, skateboarding
Tuition: $775-$1,275 depending on the session
New York Film Academy Summer Camp
Specialty: Filmmaking, acting for film, 3-D animation, screenwriting
Extras: Located on the Universal Studios backlot
Tuition: $1,000-$6,900 depending on specialty and length of stay