Traverse City News and Events

Welcome To The Chaos Of Summer Camp Registration Season

By Craig Manning | Jan. 29, 2024

Camping out in a parking lot in the dead of winter. Setting half a dozen reminders on your phone to make sure you’re on the right website at exactly the right time. Putting backup plans in place and bracing for what happens if the slots you’re seeking sell out before you can grab them.

We’re not talking about the struggle to get Taylor Swift concert tickets; it's about the extent some local parents go through every year to score highly-coveted summer camp slots for their kids. Some see it as a rite of passage; others liken it to the Hunger Games. Regardless, the summer camp scuffle is upon us: This week and next will see registration open for half a dozen of northern Michigan’s most popular summer camps – many of which will sell out within minutes.

Registration is already open for several summer programs, including Interlochen Arts Discovery Day Camp, Grand Traverse Tennis Camp, Camp Carvela, Camp Hayo-Went-Ha, and Camp Invention at Old Mission Peninsula School.

But the trickle of camp sign-ups will turn into a deluge in the next 10 days. The frenzy starts at 7am this Wednesday, January 31, when registration opens for College for Kids at Northwestern Michigan College. That same day, at 6:30pm, sign-ups open for Norte’s Summer Bike Camp. And the next day (Thursday, February 1) at 7am, parents will have their chance to snag slots for camps offered by The Pathfinder School and Grand Traverse Conservation District. Camp Island View, hosted by the Old Mission Peninsula School, also opens for registration on February 1, but the school has not yet specified a time.

The action will continue next week, when sign-ups go live for what are arguably the most in-demand summer camps in the entire region. First, at 7am on February 5, the YMCA will begin accepting registrations for its summer day camps. Sign-ups for those must be done in person at the YMCA West location on Silver Lake Road. Monday registration is only open to those with Family memberships, while remaining slots open up at 7am on February 6 to those with Youth membership plans.

Then, on Thursday, February 8, enrollment opens for the popular Summer Explorers day camp, hosted by Traverse City Area Public Schools.

On the eve of the chaos, The Ticker asked readers to share their own stories. Across dozens of responses, a few key takeaways emerged: First, many families rely on summer camps as a replacement for school or child care, gravitating toward camps with longer hours and more days or weeks of programming. Second, many families aren’t just putting their kids in one camp, but are filling up the summer by assembling a patchwork of half a dozen camps, if not more. And third, there aren’t enough camp slots to go around.

It didn’t used to be this way, according to the YMCA’s Thomas Graber. Now in his 12th year as part of the Grand Traverse Bay YMCA, Graber’s role as senior program director means he oversees all the organization’s program offerings, including summer camps. Today, the YMCA sells out its 200 summer camp slots almost immediately. Not so long ago, more than half of those slots wouldn’t sell at all.

“The first 3-4 years that I was here, we were out marketing,” Graber says. “We’d be saying ‘We’ve gotta get kids [for these camps],’ because we were serving 70-80 kids a week, and that was leaving 120 spots open.”

At some point, a switch flipped. These days, parents camp out at the YMCA the night before registration opens. Last year, local mom Lauren Teichner arrived at the YMCA at 4am on registration day, only to find that there were already 40 other people waiting in line. “There has to be another way that is still equitable. And the need for more resources to support parents of small kids could not be more apparent," Teichner says.

Graber acknowledges the difficulty: “I certainly don't want people lining up outside our facility at 3am on a February day,” he says. “We've modified our registration process every single year to try to address the problem, but it seems like it always just exacerbates the issue.”

Last year, for instance, the YMCA pushed registration back from 5:30am to 7am, “in hopes that it would alleviate people lining up at 3.” The plan didn’t work: “It actually went the opposite way; people started lining up even earlier,” Graber says.

Other potential solutions, Graber continues, are mostly double-edged swords. Switching to online registration would eliminate the problem of people lining up in the middle of the night, but would also disadvantage families that lack reliable internet access. And moving registration to the evening would allow everything to happen at a more reasonable hour, but could prove impossible for single parents who can’t get out of work.

Ultimately, Graber is of the mind that tweaking the registration process can only accomplish so much when the real problem is capacity – or lack thereof.

Fortunately, there are some glimmers of hope: After a few seasons when it struggled with staffing its existing programs, Graber tells The Ticker that Grand Traverse Bay YMCA is now in good enough shape to consider adding a second summer camp site. As is, the organization is only licensed to host summer camps at its South location, and that license is maxed out at 200 kids. Expanding to a second location could create dozens more slots in the years to come, and Graber says the process of licensing another location could start as soon as September.

There’s also another new camp in town this year: Northern Blooms Montessori, the school that opened in the Commongrounds building in September, is planning to launch its own camp this summer. “We can hold up to 23 children ranging from ages 14 months to six years of age – eight toddlers and 15 primary students,” says Executive Program Director Samantha Gauthier. “Priority will be given to our current families, and applications for the public will open up February 12.”

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