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Fantasy camps for the young at heart

Courtesy of Pamplin Historical Park

At the Civil War Adventure Camp, participants can join in musket drills.

“Everybody wants the backstage ticket.”

This is one way that Cruising With the Stars creator and lead instructor Sharon Savoy sums up the appeal of her one-week themed ballroom cruise — and it’s probably the best way to understand why fantasy camps in general are gaining such popularity amongst affluent Generation X travelers.

More: Best fantasy camps for grownups

Cruising with the Stars, Broadway Camp, auto-racing camps and even a Civil War reenactment camp lure vacationers in spite of the big-ticket sign-up fee, because they offer a chance to live out what’s typically only seen on the screen.

“Even celebrities who have been on ‘Dancing with the Stars’ said being on the show felt like a fantasy,” says Savoy, a World Exhibition Dance Championship winner who has trained many of the professional dancers appearing on today's popular competition shows.  For the inaugural Cruising with the Stars sailing, she’s booked Karina Smirnoff, one of the biggest celebrities to come out of the televised dance craze, as the headliner.  All seven instructors are recognizable faces for those who follow "Dancing With the Stars," "So You Think You Can Dance" and the other shows.

“We’re having little gatherings where guests can ask questions, meet the people, rub shoulders, and even foxtrot alongside them,” says Savoy.  “It’s a glimpse of the real thing … but without the intimidation of being on national television, or feeling the judges’ heat.”

For participants who are there for actual technical knowledge, there’s no limit to the number of classes participants can take during the June sailing — and classes will be split into three levels, so the advanced amateurs who show up to learn award-winning arm styling from Katrina Smirnoff won’t be getting their toes stepped on by first-timers who just want to have a photo taken with her.

In a fantasy camp, it’s common for high-quality technical instruction and flat-out escapism  to coexist. At Rock 'n' Roll Fantasy Camp, a hugely popular concept that’s now offered in New York, London and sometimes even in the Caribbean as well as its spiritual home of Los Angeles, one group of attendees might be ensconced in serious rehearsals with A-list studio musicians turned “instructor” just for the four-day camp; while another group might be lining up to pose for pictures pretending to duet with an amiable Steven Tyler. 

Not all fantasy camps are glamorous, however. Pamplin Historical Park near Petersburg, Va., has a Civil War Adventure Camp wherein participants overnight in re-created Civil War soldiers' barracks, eat soldiers' rations and learn drills and tactics of the time. It´s a fraction the cost of the over-the-top camps, and unsurprisingly, draws a specific type of history enthusiast as well as families on drive vacations.

“We felt engaged in the experience from the moment we mustered in ... and we haven´t stopped talking about the skirmishes,” says Adam Venette of Cypress, Texas, who attended a recent camp at Pamplin.

In a down economy, one might think that grownups would be taking austerity measures. And they have. But for one week out of a year, the opportunity to live out a fantasy is also an opportunity to reclaim one’s vitality. 

“People tell me that the most memorable thing about a high-performance driving course is the first time they actually get the car out on the track, and experience the freedom they never had before,” says Spencer Pumpelly, a professional TRG-affiliated racer who also instructs at the Skip Barber Racing School. He says that many people notice “the amount of mental energy it takes just to complete a lap.”

An interesting takeaway from studying the fantasy camp trend is this: Some Americans actually still enjoy using mental energy during a vacation, even if Travelocity commercials indicate otherwise. Whether driving a race car, singing on a Broadway stage or learning a foxtrot, fantasy camp participants are exercising parts of their minds and bodies in ways they don’t get to otherwise — and to them, this is preferable to a week of all-inclusive umbrella drinks.

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