It used to be summer camps were rated by the horses available to ride, the quality of the cabins and the size of the swimming holes.
Now the hottest camps are distinguished by the computers available to program, the quality of the software and the size of the hard drives.
Computer camps are "da bomb" for kids as young as 7. Weeklong residential programs pack young minds with multimedia programming skills that didn't exist five years ago. Forget campers carving their names in leather belts. Such traditional camp activities are being replaced by Web site design, 3-D graphic creation and digital movie editing.
"Today's kids are born with a mouse in their hands, and computers are part of their lives," said Pete Findley, whose Cybercamps are expected to attract about 11,000 youngsters this summer. "These camps can really put kids at the top of their class or really ignite a creative passion for something they might want to do later in life."
Getting that academic edge doesn't come cheap. Most residential computer camps, which include lodging in college dorms, meals and instruction, cost more than $800 a week. That's about double the price of many traditional summer camps. But the money is well spent, promoters say, because high-tech campers get hands-on access to first-rate computers and personalized instruction.
"At school these days, kids are only getting a taste of computers, but there's no advanced instruction," said Justin Thomas, advertising director for ACE Computer Camp, which has spots for almost 20,000 students this summer on 80 college campuses.
At such camps, youngsters get far more than a taste of computing. Some campers spend more than five hours a day at keyboards.
Many parents apparently think that's a good option for their children's vacation.
"Right now, there's a focus on more academic camps," said Pete Ingram-Cauchi, who started Internal Drive Tech Camps last year. The program has spread to 21 college campuses across the country.
Ingram-Cauchi said computer camps also are becoming more popular with girls. Computer camps in the past often had eight or more boys for every girl, he said, but now camps like his are altering curriculum to attract girls.