Image: Camp Jam
Camp Jam
"No canoes, lots of Rock"—that's the slogan at Camp Jam, a five-day overnight program where the musically-inclined are pushed to "unleash their inner rock star." Led by Camp Jam founder Jeff Carlisi, the former lead guitarist of the rock band 38 Special, days at Camp Jam are filled with group lessons and celebrity visits from music stars.
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updated 5/23/2008 9:26:17 AM ET 2008-05-23T13:26:17

It was the final day of summer camp, and 14-year-old Alex Lynfield was hunkered down near a rock, peering through a face mask for the source of enemy fire. "There were just two of us left," he says. "It was special-ops versus the secret agents."

Alex raised the barrel of his paintball gun, scanning the forest. His heart beating was the only sound, before—tat, tat, tat, tat, tat!—Alex's summer vacation ended in a barrage of stinging plastic bullets that clinched victory for his team in a mock war in the mountains of Southern California.

"That is one moment I'll never forget."

Organized by Pali Adventures of Running Springs, Calif., Secret Agent Camp is one of more than a dozen specialty programs designed by the company for kids ages nine to 16 years old. The camps—which include instructional courses on subjects like photography, cooking, dance, extreme sports and fashion design—cater to a new generation of kids looking to get more out of the summer camp experience than canoeing and roasting marshmallows over the fire.

"There's now a whole wealth of new offerings for kids when it comes to summer camp," says Peter Surgenor, president of the American Camp Association, a Martinsville, Ind., organization with more than 7,000 members. "Traditional camps remain strong, but specialty camps that focus on things like sports or theater or science offer a huge number of opportunities."

For Alex Lynfield, who plans to attend military academy starting with the next school year, the four weeks he spent in Pali Adventures' Secret Agent Camp were a logical step in a trajectory toward his goal of becoming a U.S. Marine. Days at the 74-acre campus in the mountains northeast of Los Angeles involved three-hour training sessions each morning in military skills like shooting, self defense, climbing, rope work and evasive driving (in go karts). Afternoons are open for kids to swim or participate in traditional camp activities, though Alex said he never wavered from his core focus.

"Some days were paintball all morning, then more paintball all afternoon," he says.

Hundreds of specialty summer camps and programs have opened in the last decade, offering kids as young as six years old the opportunity to learn a new skill or, as in Alex's case, feed the fire of an obsession.

"If your kid can dream it up, that camp is probably out there," says Evan Heltay, president of My Summer Camps.com, a directory with descriptions of more than 18,000 summer camps in 60 countries. "We've seen new camps for subjects as obscure as robotics and marine sciences."

Image: College Discovery Program
Musiker Discovery Programs Inc.
For kids more interested in academia than the Adirondacks, Musiker Discovery Programs of Roslyn, N.Y., runs camps that put high-schoolers onto university campuses around the country. The College Discovery Program includes visits to dozens of college campuses, courses on training for college admissions tests, and workshops on how to best craft an entrance essay to get into the college or university of your dreams.
In Park City, Utah, the Learn to Fly Camp teaches kids ski jumping on an artificial slope at Utah's Olympic Park—the same facility used by Olympic athletes in training. Other camps are more cerebral, including Musiker Discovery's College Discovery Program, which sends high-schoolers to university campuses around the country for a taste of life after senior year. At French Woods, a camp in New York's Catskill Mountains, kids pick a major and a minor focus in the performing arts of their choosing—from acting and magic to dance and trapeze.

For Colin Reineberg, a 14-year-old from Naperville, Ill., a program called Camp Jam in Chicago was a perfect fit. Headed by Jeff Carlisi, the former lead guitarist of the band 38 Special, days at Camp Jam are filled with group lessons and celebrity visits from music stars like Ed King of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Ed Roland of Collective Soul. Colin plays guitar in a junior high band called The Perceptions, and his goal is to become a professional musician. Colin is a former Boy Scout who used to attend a summer camp in the woods; Camp Jam, he says, gave him a peek into the daily life—and grind—of real rock stars.

Image: French Woods
French Woods
On a private lake in New York's Catskill Mountains, French Woods camp offers kids an immersion in the performing arts—from acting and magic to dance and circus trapeze. Kids pick a major and a minor focus to hone skills in multiple interest areas. Swimming, boating, hiking and other traditional camp activities are part of the French Woods program as well.
"You see what's beyond the music, how to set up gear onstage and what it's like behind the scenes," he says.

At Camp Jam, whose slogan is "No canoes, lots of Rock," a Friday night concert serves as a finale. Campers have the chance to play in front of a live audience, to show what they've learned over the course of the week. Last year, Colin went to Camp Jam for two weeks, forming a band there called the Mutorcs. He hung out with Jim Peterik from the band Survivor, Ricky Byrd, a guitarist for Joan Jett, and "some guy who plays with Sheryl Crow."

At the final concert, Colin turned on his amp and fingered a guitar pick as the Mutorcs took the stage. Lights blazed above, and the audience cheered and hooted for the music to start. "It was the best night of my summer," he says. "This year I'm going back for three weeks straight."

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