The competition of a three-legged race could be brutal--and having your bunk short-sheeted humiliating--but most adults remember sleepaway camp as a relatively carefree experience, a respite from school and siblings and a departure from the pressures of normal life. Kids who went to private overnight camps spent weeks in bucolic settings, discovering activities they enjoyed and gamely participating in those they didn't. There were bug bites and bad food, but the day's biggest challenge often centered on rowing a canoe to the other side of the lake or roasting a marshmallow without burning it.
Russell Lyons sees things a bit differently. The 10-year-old from San Diego is hoping summer camp will help foster his career in the film industry. Last summer he spent a week at Pali Overnight Adventures' Hollywood Stunt Camp in California's San Bernardino Mountains. There he got professional instruction on taking 40-ft. free falls onto mats and choreographing fight scenes. Says Lyons, who already has an agent and occasionally leaves school early to go to auditions: "If I ever have to do my own stunts on a shoot, I'm ready."
Fading fast are the days when parents sent their kids to camp with goals no loftier than getting them out of the house and into nature. Experts say parents want their kids working toward a tangible skill or having a high-caliber experience, preferably one that looks good on a college application. And today's kids, so accustomed to being overscheduled and overstimulated during the school year, are at risk for getting bored if left undirected in summer. As a result, camp owners say, the number of specialty camps that focus on acquiring a skill that stands out on a résumé is growing and--to the distress of some traditionalists--the enthusiasm of campers is shifting toward such camps and away from those that offer a range of general-interest activities. "If a child can explore something he's passionate about at age 10, like photography, he's got a head start," says Barry Vigon, camp director for Pali Overnight Adventures, which, in addition to Hollywood Stunt Camp, operates Secret Agent Camp, Acting Academy, Spa Camp and Rock Star Camp (price: $1,435 for a one-week session). "We've come to realize that camp is much more than recreation," says Marla Coleman, past president of the American Camp Association (ACA). "It's a total education experience."