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Is Summer Camp Really Like the Movies?

Sending your children to sleep away camp is an amazing way to ensure their summer is one of personal growth, enduring friendships and exciting new experiences. But this decision can be understandably scary for parents whose only camp knowledge comes from the movies.

Unfortunately, camp novices often have hazy visions of camp life as riddled with inattentive counselors, massive food fights, and “panty raids”, conjured up by painfully inaccurate pop culture phenomena – Wet Hot American Summer, anyone?

During the many summers when I spent eight weeks at a traditional all-girls sleep away camp, my “camp friends” and I often commiserated about the struggle to explain our love of camp to our “home friends”. Our girlfriends back at school just didn’t understand why we wanted to spend entire summers living in wooden cabins with no electricity, not interacting with any boys, and wearing – *gasp* – uniforms.  We all wrote on our camp yearbooks: “From the outside looking in you could never understand it; from the inside looking out you could never explain it.”

This problem isn’t limited to over-dramatic preteen girls; adults who didn’t attend sleep away camp may still see the experience as a bit of a mystery. So, as someone who considers herself a top expert on both real camp life and summer camp films, I’m here to answer your question once and for all: is sleep away camp really like the movies?


No, sleep away camp is not really like the movies.

There are no hidden stashes of junk food or secret late night kitchen raids. There are definitely no food fights a la Camp Rock or It Takes Two. Harmful pranks or bullying like in the beginning of The Parent Trap would not be tolerated, and if anything like that ever happened, an “isolation cabin” would not be the solution.

To continue on a Parent Trap vein, girls never cut each other’s hair, nor pierce their own ears, nor discover they are long lost twins (even if we may have pretended once or twice). Unlike in Meatballs or Wet Hot American Summer, the male and female counselors don’t spend their whole summers – or a single minute – kissing all over camp. In fact, counselors never have inappropriate relationships in any way – though I promise you, as 13 year old girls, we wished they did so we could gossip about it.

Unlike the movies, campers don’t get left behind on overnight trips, left hanging upside down from the rock wall, or left operating a motorboat alone. And no, there was never, ever, a “panty raid”.  (What does that even mean?!)

But on second thought…


Yes, sleep away camp is really like the movies.

The identical cabins along the bunk line are all wooden, there’s no electricity, and The Parent Trap-esque green and white uniforms are a staple. Yes, the lake is usually pretty murky, and very cold, and the swim test is truly everyone’s least favorite activity (but braving the lake is worth it so you can learn to waterski for the first time). Yes, the campers sing silly songs and chants all day long, the campfire nights are the best, and s’mores are practically their own food group. And yes, there are plenty of counselors just like Bill Murray in Meatballs – counselors who befriend introverted kids and help them transform into more outgoing, happier children. Those counselors make sure you know that “it just doesn’t matter” if you win or lose any camp game, because you’ve succeeded just by trying your hardest.

Most importantly, it is the friendships from camp that are really like the movies. As evidenced by the tear-filled end-of-camp departures from the campers in The Parent Trap, the C.I.T.’s in Meatballs, and the counselors in Wet Hot American Summer, camp friends are true friends. Saying goodbye at the end of each amazing summer is sad, but camp friends know that the bonds of shared summers will endure long after the last campfire’s glow has faded away.

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Author: Emily S. is a former camper, C.I.T., and counselor. She spent 8 incredible summers at an all-girls sleep away camp in Harrison, ME. She also is a blogger for direct4tv. She works with Adrian Rawlings, Senior Editor of