Crafting Happy Camp Experiences

Bein' happy blog image

Happy Campers

Almost everyone has used the phrase “happy camper.” Somehow the two words have become a pair. That’s why an article I found on happiness seemed perfect for my camp audience.

Happiness is a major life goal, so a tech company wondered why designers don’t make happiness their starting goal when creating new technology. Recently they brought together representatives from Disney, Lippincott, and SoulCycle for a SXSW event called “Designing Happiness.”1

You’re probably not a tech geek, but their ideas are worth pondering. After all, YOU create, too: One or more camp seasons and sessions every year! The 3 stages of the science of happiness apply as much to camp as anywhere–and can even help you grow your camp, when you take advantage of the cycle!

The 3 Stages of Happiness


1. ANTICIPATIONboy dinosaur chalk board measuring cropped

Earl Pilcher (the character quoted above) was at least 1/3 right about happiness.

It’s a well-documented fact that our brains are hardwired to anticipate. Most of us have noticed that planning and building up to an event can be more fun than the event itself.

“Anticipating positive events sustains the output of dopamine into the brain’s chemical pathways,” says marketer Neil Patel.”2

In other words, it makes us feel happy! That’s why it’s an important part of a happy experience and one we can all engineer into our experiences.

Make it yours: The weeks leading up to camp are the perfect time to interject some extra anticipation in campers and parents. Apart from normal camp communications, can you involve kids (through parents) in even just one interaction (polls, quizzes, or contests) to build the excitement? Or simply email a picture from last year with a teaser about something fun that awaits them.



kids jumping in lake cropped

In most events, there are parts of the experience that aren’t pleasant, but for it to register as happiness, it has to either:

  • Meet more of our expectations than not…OR
  • There must be elements of surprise we hadn’t counted on

Balancing anticipation and surprise can be tricky. Just make sure surprises are:

  • Happy (of course!)
  • “In the moment” – (Trying to anticipate a surprise can remove the positive effects of both.)

If you must mess with something highly anticipated (i.e. “Surprise! We’re not having our zipline this year!), you must either turn disappointment to anticipation before camp or know for sure that you have an even better alternative.


Personal connections during the experience usually tip the balance in favor of a positive or negative memory. That’s why counselors have such a profound effect on the camp experience. To borrow from Disney again, Disney’s “cast members” (employees) always add to the delight.

The Crossover –This tip fills the bill for all three stages.

Disney is among other organizations who recognize that a little fanfare helps participants’ mentally prepare for enjoyment. Disney’s sign, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy,” welcomes park visitors through a tunnel that opens into a whole new world.

This “crossover” is important, according to Bruce Vaughn, former chief creative exec with Disney Imagineering.

Make it yours: While it may make things a bit more hectic for you, time one session’s start with another one’s end. This allows participants passing each other to affect each other in positive ways:

  • Newcomers get to see engagement already in action, building their anticipation (which is a feel-good emotion that can help balance out nerves.)
  • Leavers get to connect their camp experience with the incoming wave of anticipation, which helps them with….



puppy and boy compressed

The memory is, of course, the final word on whether an event was fun or made us happy. In the retelling of a great experience, usually the unpleasant parts are forgotten or at least put into perspective. This is largely out of your control–but not entirely:

  • Grand Finale – Disney leaves park visitors with a “kiss goodnight,” their amazing fireworks show. It’s just one more feature designed to leave you with recall of a great time.
  • When All Else Fails…Puppies – The Happiness conference at SXSW pulled out all the stops to make their point. They shamelessly released 10 puppies into the audience for the final kiss goodnight. The effect was astounding.

Make it yours: Because of camp’s intensity, kids’ brains are hardwired–up to a certain age and if everything went reasonably well–to start building a positive memory before it’s even over. But saying good-bye at camp is hard to do, and you want kids’ memories not to be just the joy of camp in general, but the joy of your camp.

I can’t think of a better way to leave a kid with a happy parting memory of camp than with a puppy cuddle.

(Which you then send them a picture of, when it’s time to enroll next season. See how that works?)


1How to Design Happiness

2The Psychology of Anticipation