Put down the graham crackers and marshmallows and pick up the Michelin Guide; it's time to take summer seriously.
"The days of leaving your kids behind in a schoolyard for the day are gone," says Jeff Soloman, executive director of the National Camp Association, a nonprofit summer camp placement service. "Sometimes it's a matter of going further away from home to find the unique experiences."
Arts and crafts? Please.
Try studying the AIDS crisis from the hospital beds of Third World countries, spending 40 hours a week honing your acting skills or strolling Rome's cobblestoned streets with new-found friends.
Of course, this kind of adventurous and in-depth experiential learning comes with a hefty price tag; tuition at some super-luxe camps ranges from $1,300 to $2,200 a week. But while many camps house campers in plush dorms and offer stays at four-star hotels, those in the camp industry say these programs are as committed to traditional values as they are to their specialized curricula and facilities.
"Parents are concerned that kids learn how to get along with others," says Peg Smith, CEO of American Camp Association, "and learn how to negotiate and navigate this world."
Inside Super-Luxe Camps
But there's no denying these summer camps' splendor.
The standout attraction for students at Stagedoor Manor is the surrounding community of campers and expert teachers who share a passion for the performing arts.
For many, it's "the first time in their lives they feel validated," says Konnie Cittrell, production director for Stagedoor. The camp's social atmosphere is one that welcomes and encourages students to be unique and melodramatic--the kind of support that may be lacking from their usual peers, adds Cittrell.
The camp, located in New York's Catskill Mountains, boasts seven theaters, an extensive costume collection (it includes attire from Broadway productions such as "Oklahoma!" and "West Side Story"), and superstar alumni like Zach Braff and Natalie Portman. Campers audition in the first two days of camp; the rest of their stay is filled with five hours of daily rehearsals and over three hours of daily class time.
Camps that focus on exercise are also popular among families with means.
At Canyon Ranch for Teens, students work one-on-one with nutritionists and personal trainers; feast on organic produce, whole wheat pancakes and blackened mahi-mahi; and build their own schedule of fitness classes and personal services. Among the activities offered: tai chi, belly dancing and the "zen of eating." Teens stay in the air-conditioned, private Bryn Mawr College campus dorms in Pennsylvania.
Of course, students with wanderlust need an outlet. That's where Westcoast Connection comes in.
The outfitter offers teens a number of trips abroad. History buffs can explore museums throughout Eastern Europe, while the more adventurous can get scuba-diving certification in the Grenadines and explore the barrier reef in Australia--all with experienced leaders who have been to the destinations repeatedly and know the hot spots and the locals.
Even the most privileged youths are impressed by these experiences. "By the time they're teenagers," says Mark Segal, a director at Westcoast Connection, "they've done the family vacations domestically, and they are looking for those unique life experiences farther away."
Summer travel also gives students a way to give back to the international community.
"We have noticed a real trend toward doing things that are meaningful and moving away from indulgent adventures," says Jeffrey Shumlin, admissions director of Putney Student Travel, which offers educational and service camps around the globe.
He says the students he works with are willing to rough it and take on serious issues in order to feel as if they've done something worthwhile at the end of the summer. That might mean studying environmental stress in Madagascar or the plight of women in Cambodia. Students spend their time engrossed in the cultures--they prepare the customary foods from local produce and live in eco-lodges and traditional, primitive residences.
Another perk offered by camps with immodest price tags? A close-knit community. That's because most boast low student-to-instructor ratios, intensely involved directors (who often remain friends and mentors long after the students have left the programs), and family-run programming.
"I have students who knock on my door all the time and just plop down on my bed," says Renee Weissman of Weissman Teen Tours, who each summer travels with her students through Western Europe. "It's that kind of open communication that I think is very important."
But is it possible for a camp to provide a well-off student with a lasting experience?
"It's sometimes difficult to wow the lucky group of kids we have," says Westcoast Connection's Segal, "and when you can give them that wow moment that they can't get staying at home staying at the traditional camp … that's the impact moment."