Summer camp participants trade canoes and craft projects for a cross-country roller coaster adventure
The moment the bus pulled up to Cedar Point Amusement Park in Sandusky, Ohio last summer, 13-year-old Jacob Hogan and his fellow campers made a bee line to Maverick, a monster coaster ride.
"I was with other kids who wanted to run to the coasters right away," said Hogan, 13, of Mount Laurel. "It was the only time I didn't mind getting up early."
Jacob will be back riding coasters this summer with ThrillCoaster Tours, a Woodbridge, Middlesex County, company that caters to youngsters who share a common bond of riding coasters across the country. It's one of a growing number of firms that offer nontraditional summer camps.
There's Space Camp in Alabama, surf camp in North Carolina and hot-air balloon camp in Texas.
But for coaster hunters, nothing beats ThrillCoaster Tours.
Ira Gordon, who founded ThrillCoaster in 2004, said his campers sign up for the trips to ride the coasters, but leave with friends from all over the country.
"They meet people with common interests," he said. "There's one major clique. They all like amusement parks. There's a mutual desire to do the same thing."
The campers get to the parks early and stay until the parks close, breaking only for lunch and dinner. There are other stops along the way, such as baseball games and whale-watching excursions.
Right after college, Gordon and three friends based a trip around roller coasters, traveling about 2,000 miles to eight parks in 10 days. Later, family vacations were based around amusement parks.
Summer camp tours are geared for ages 12 through 16. This year, various camps will visit 17 parks, including Cedar Point (which has been called the roller coaster capital of the world with 17 of the rides), several Six Flags parks, Busch Gardens in Williamsburg, Va, and Hershey Park in Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Camps are one and two weeks long.
"I love watching how these kids enjoy themselves doing something they really love to do," said Gordon, 37, of East Brunswick, Middlesex County.
The counselor-to-camper ratio is 1 to 6 and Gordon goes on every trip. Each averages 25 campers. There are four trips this summer, along with one for families.
Prices for the camps range from $1,325 to $2,575 depending on the duration. The family camp runs from $2,500 for a family of three to $3,300 for a family of five. The cost includes transportation, hotels, meals and park admission.
About 60 percent of the campers are repeat customers, Gordon said. And each year the tours are changed based on where the campers have been and where they'd like to go.
Jacob stumbled on the camp purely by accident, as he surfed the Internet.
"I wasn't even looking for it," he said. "But I thought it would be really cool. I'm an avid roller coaster enthusiast."
The teenager's first coaster was Rolling Thunder at Six Flags Great Adventure and his favorite coaster is El Toro. In all, he has been on 128 coasters and hopes to hit the 200 mark this summer.
His room is decorated with posters from Cedar Point. He has roller coaster books and even a large model. As a career, he would like to be an engineer and design coasters.
Initially, Jacob's mother, Lisa Bien, was not sure her son was ready for a camp that would take him across the country and far from home. But she said her son returned more confident and self-assured.
This year, Jacob, an eighth grader at Harrington Middle School, is returning for four weeks over a few tours. It's setting the family back about $4,600.
"How do you put a price tag on an experience like that?" Bien asked. "It's something you can't put a price tag on."
The original appeal, Jacob said, was to get to parks he had not visited. He admits he was initially nervous, because he had not been away from home for more than a few days.
But for him, the thrill is in the ride, as well as a sense of accomplishment.
"You're scared, but you go on it anyway," he said. "It's a feeling of conquering."