tampabay.com

For summer camps, some sticker shock

By ELISABETH DYER
Published April 6, 2007


The McCormick Water Ski and Wakeboard School Kid's Kamp in Seffner gives youth a chance to ride the waves. But it will cost more than some families pay for rent - $450 a week.

The ballet summer camp at the Patel Conservatory lasts just three hours a day, but costs $250 a week.

And kids can dive with sharks at the Florida Aquarium's two-week SCUBA camp, for a cool $825.

These are examples of Tampa's pricier summer camps, not for families with tight budgets. Still they are popular each year, serving dozens of young people who come from all over Hillsborough to take part in the specialty programs. The kids can earn diving certification, learn ballet or even make their own movies.

Nationally, the average cost per week for day camps is $184, according to Allison MacMunn, public relations specialist for the American Camp Association. Plenty of camps in Hillsborough cost well below that. But a select few are more expensive.

"SCUBA class does look expensive," said Becky Brown, the aquarium's education camp coordinator. But AquaCamps offer once-in-a-lifetime experiences, she says. "They're worth it."

In other AquaCamps, kids learn to kayak, sail and take a boat to Fantasy Island in Tampa Bay, which is maintained by aquarium staff with native plants only.

They swim in the aquarium's tanks with fish, Brown said, and top the camp off with a dive few rarely experience.

"Being in a tank with 10 sharks," Brown said, "that's always the highlight."

Some parents have found a way to balance camp costs. They break the summer into a variety of camps.

That's the case for 7-year-old Samantha Baker of Virginia Park.

She's booked for a weeklong camp at her synagogue - a bargain at $100 - a trip to visit her grandparents and perhaps a weeklong overnight camp.

"She's ready," said her father, Jim Baker. "I'm not sure."

Samantha's also heading back to the Aquarium for AquaCamps programs.

She never gets bored with them, Baker said.

He's broken down the cost to $9 an hour for the AquaCamps programs. "That, I think, for what you get over there, is a great deal," he said.

The top criteria for parents when looking for a camp is not cost, according to the American Camp Association.

It's building their child's self-confidence.

"It's all about the experience," Baker said.

After spending several summers in AquaCamps, Samantha adopted an otter, which she helps support by donating a third of her allowance.

"It's helped with Samantha's self-esteem," Baker said. "She interacts with a lot of animals. She's made a lot of friends. She's really become a part of the Aquarium."

Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at edyer@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3321.