The snow fell from a slate-gray sky, and she had to shout to be heard above an icy wind. But to hear Dori Zvili talk, you'd have thought the corn was high and it was the middle of July.
"Just imagine all of this a beautiful green color," said Zvili, director of Camp Milldale in Reisterstown, gesturing toward the camp's 150 frigid and decidedly wan acres as she gave a guided tour yesterday. "The water will be blue. Kids will be in the pools, swimming, running around everywhere. It'll be here before you know it."
It can take a leap of faith to envision the joys of summer when it is 25 degrees outside, but that's exactly what Zvili asked of the grown-ups and children tramping the soggy site with her yesterday. They were just 30 of the thousands of parents and kids taking part in what has become an annual Baltimore-area ritual: weighing options for summer camps that won't begin for four or five months.
"It's never too early to start looking," said Cheryl Clemens, editor of Maryland Family magazine, which published its yearly Camp Guide last week. "People talk about summer camps year-round, and now is the time to get serious."
Industry experts are gauging how the economic slowdown will affect business this year, but it is clear that the past decade has seen an explosion in interest in local summer camps. Clemens' publication, a property of the Baltimore Sun Media Group, had to increase its page count by 40 percent to list more than 300 camps this year.
The list includes residential camps; day camps such as Milldale, which offers everything from canoeing and swimming to experience in organic farming; and a proliferation of specialty camps that focus on sports broadcasting, etiquette and everything in between.
"There are even family camps now," said Clemens. "If I were a kid, I don't know if I'd want to attend a camp with my parents, but those are getting more popular."
Even in normal economic times, paying for summer camp can be a challenge. The YMCA's Y Journeys in Camping Fun, which operates camps in six Maryland counties over 10 weeks and had more than 3,400 campers last year, is among the more affordable, with tuition of $100 to $225 per week, depending on age and other factors. Parents called Milldale a reasonable choice at $300 to $400 per week. Residential camps can run in excess of $8,000 for a full session of eight weeks.
Perhaps because most camps have gotten creative, there is little evidence that the economic downturn will spell disaster this season.
"You hear doom and gloom, but parents are still looking for a good, solid program," said Don Webb, director of Nature Camps in Monkton and a 35-year veteran of the field who has enrolled five more children than at this time last year. "I'm wary, but I'm warily optimistic."
Like most of his competitors, Webb is sweetening the deal this year by offering reductions for siblings as well as discounts for early registration.
Camp Cayuga, in Honesdale, Pa., in the Poconos, usually offers parents an "early bird discount" if they register by September. That can save parents up to $775 for a two-week session and $1,500 over the full eight weeks.
This year, the discount extends through the end of March.
"We got out in front of this," said Brian Webb, program director at Cayuga. "This camp has been around since 1957. We've weathered Vietnam and 9/11. We know how to adjust."
The Y has repeated its decision of 2007 not to raise prices, said spokeswoman Sara Milstein.
Where they rarely see applications for financial aid this early, the Y is getting 10 to 15 such applications a day.
"We're definitely feeling the effects of the recession," Milstein said, adding that the organization will be that much more aggressive in its fundraising. "It will be difficult, but we'll step up to the plate and meet demand as always."
Milldale and Cayuga are among the many camps offering more flexible scheduling choices for parents. At Cayuga, campers can choose from among four two-week sessions rather than the usual two four-week sessions, giving parents a chance to accommodate other summer plans more easily.
Such new options have helped offset parents' nervousness about the economy and their job security.
"We haven't had a decline to the point where we're frantic," said Brian Webb. "There's a small percentage decline. Last year, we might have had 12 kids in a cabin. This year, we might have 10. If we were down to three, we'd be worried."
Camp managers were looking toward one of the year's big events - the Camp Fair sponsored by Baltimore's Child magazine, scheduled for March 8 at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Timonium - for a clearer sign of this year's prospects. More than 70 camps will operate booths, make their pitches and meet with prospective customers.
"Things aren't settled, but we'll know a lot more at that point," Don Webb said.
One hopeful camper had no trouble picturing happy days ahead.
As the snow turned to rain yesterday, Alana Butter, 5, of Reisterstown broke away from her father, David, and others on the tour, ran past an empty swimming pool, jumped on a seesaw and leaped up and down.
"Are you looking forward to camp?" Zvili asked.
"I can't wait!" Alana cried.
How to maximize the camp experience:
* Share aspects of the camp selection process with your child (what kind of camp, how long to stay, whether to go with a friend)
* Allow your child to assume some responsibility for camp preparation (help shop for necessities, pack, fill out registration forms)
* Consider a camp that offers programs for a specific strength you have identified in your child
For a listing of local camps, see Maryland Family magazine online at marylandfamilymagazine.com
Source: American Camp Association