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Family Camps Save Sanity and Money

Don’t stress over planning your family vacation. At family camps, daily meals, activities and lodging are all included in a basic fee.

 

Several years ago, we had a dilemma about our summer vacation. As parents of three toddlers—a 2-year-old and 3-year-old twins—as well as a 12-year-old, where in the world could we all go for a vacation that would be great for each of us? One of my husband’s grad-school buddies suggested the family camp where his extended family had been going for the past couple of decades.

Wait. A place where families have been going for decades? With kids of all ages? I needed to know more about this place. And the world of family camp opened up for us.

Family Camp Trends and Benefits

Nestled between the vacation categories of do-it-yourself camping and all-inclusive resorts are family camps. These camps combine accommodations, meals, organized childcare, activities and programs for a basic fee. All-inclusive resorts tend to be more posh than most family camps, which range from ‘pitch your own tent’ to basic, comfortable cabins (think “The Parent Trap”).

They’re also becoming increasingly popular. “Family camps is one of the fastest-growing kinds of camp programs,” says Peg Smith, chief executive officer of the American Camp Association. “The number of family camp programs has grown 215 percent in the past 15 years.”

Many camps are privately run by organizations such as the YMCA, 4H, alumni associations or churches. Others are run as part of a city’s parks and recreational division. Some camps have themes such as performing arts, weight loss, historical re-enactments or sports. Still others are geared toward families with children who have certain medical conditions, such as cancer or diabetes.

As family camps expand, many have expanded programming and instructional activities as well, says Smith. They’re also tailored to accommodate busy families with short overnight trips, day tours and evening activities. Extended families can reunite without having to act as host; single parents can relax and have fun while their kids play with new friends in kids’ groups; and grandparents can enjoy a special week with their grandkids. 

Smith says that family camps are also good ‘training-wheels’ helping parents “introduce the camp experience to younger children who have yet to experience time away from their parents.”

A Family Camp, Deconstructed

Every family camp has its own flavor and experience. Our family stayed at the Family Vacation Center in Santa Barbara. Part of the UCSB alumni association, the camp is based in campus dormitories several hundred yards from the Pacific Ocean.

From the moment we arrived, we were greeted by a group of enthusiastic staff, who unloaded our belongings into large laundry carts and scooted them promptly to our ‘home’ for the week.

Accommodations

Our four-bedroom suite had a bathroom and shower as well as a living room, complete with microwave and mini-fridge, which we stocked with our own goodies and drinks. For a week, it was great to have more space than a hotel room. We had daily housekeeping service, but unlike a hotel, we had to bring our own toiletries for the shower.

We were warned that the beds at FVC are hard, so we brought ‘egg crate’ foam, which made for a much more comfortable night’s sleep! We also found that a drying rack we brought to hold all our swimsuits and towels came in handy.

Childcare

Childcare was divided into groups by age, from infants to teens. There is a nursery area for children under 3, which had its own play yard and napping areas (as well as changing areas) for the littlest campers. Other kids played games, made crafts, explored the campus and beach with their counselors, who seemed to enjoy their young charges. (Cheesy camp songs have been passed on to a new generation.) Evening babysitting was not included in the basic cost of family camp, but it was reasonably priced and easily arranged with the staff.

Activities

Adults have a variety of activities such tennis, bicycling, watercolor classes, a gym, wine tasting tours; you can keep busy all day and well into the night. But having three toddlers, we frequently decided to simply catch up on sleep. We also loved spending time at the beach or in nearby Santa Barbara on our own.

Although we had separate activities, we had plenty of time together as a family. We participated in the Talent Show night and the twilight campfire-n-s’mores sing-along, and laughed until we cried at the End-of-Camp show with the silly skits.

Dining

Most meals were served buffet-style at one of the university’s dining halls, yet there is an emphasis on freshness, and frequently dishes are prepared to your request. It wasn’t gourmet, but there were plenty of choices at every meal for everyone’s tastes and themed meals for dinner, such as Mexican or Asian cuisine.

The ability to walk in, choose your dishes and eat right away was a godsend for picky eaters and meant hungry (and perhaps antsy) kids didn’t have to wait. I truly savored the “I don’t have to think about cooking or cleaning up” bliss for the entire week, a sentiment shared wholeheartedly by every mother I met at camp.

When to Book 

As family camps have gained in popularity, it’s not unusual for them to be booked to capacity, with waiting lists. It’s best to reserve as far in advance as possible—the year before, or early in the beginning of the calendar year for the upcoming summer. Returning campers get priority the next year for reservations. For our first year at FVC, we lucked into a week that had space available. Other camps have similar registration processes and some, such as UCLA’s Bruin Woods, near Lake Arrowhead, Calif., which has the additional requirement that at least one member of the family be either an alumni or staff member of UCLA to apply for registration. Bruin Woods holds a lottery for new families, and the average wait time for first-year placement can be as much as three years.

Cost Comparison

Compared with a vacation where you stay in a hotel, eat in restaurants, find your own activities, and pay for childcare, family camp can be a bargain. Rate vary depending on the camp chosen and the type of package selected. You can find bargains in the $400-$500 range/person per week, or pay  up to $1,200/person per week, or more.

Our current family configuration is three adults and three kids (ages 11 and 12). At the Family Vacation Center, it costs $859/week for ages 13+ and $789 for ages 8-12. Subtracting the $100 discount for alumni, our total would be $4,844, which includes our meals, lodging and most activities including kids’ groups. If we wanted to spend a week at Fess Parker’s Doubletree Resort, which is also on the beach in Santa Barbara, we’d have to get two connecting rooms at a cost of $420/night (per room) for the least-expensive rooms available, which total $5,880, before taxes and adding in the cost of meals or activities other than the hotel’s spa, pool, tennis court, or shuffleboard.

And our kids certainly wouldn’t learn any cheesy camp songs!


Destinations: Santa Barbara

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Camping


User Comments

Another great camp: Monetecito On the Thursday night before last Memorial Day weekend we decided we had to get outdoors but didn't want to face huge crowds (that ruled out Yosemite -- for that weekend anyway.) I poked around the web for campsites or homes to rent near Kings Canyon & Sequoia National Parks. I was really lucky to stumble upon Montecito Sequoia Lodge -- they had availability and it's an awesome place to take a family. It straddles the boundary of both parks so you everything is right at your doorstop. There's a lake, tons of activities, a dining hall where all the meals are served buffet style (the food is great and you don't have to cook! woo-hoo). We did a couple of day hikes, toured the giant trees (found in both parks), and spent the afternoon splashing in the King River which runs through King's Canyon. At night there are evening activities -- the 2 nights we were there we and the kids got to enjoy an astronomy lesson and a family dance. Check out: //www.montecitosequoia.com/

Would love to go! Another great article from the team at Travelmuse! I had no idea something like this existed, and I look forward to booking a week when my children are both walking. A week without dishes, and cooking but with childcare? Heaven!

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