I never attended a summer camp as a kid (I’m British, for starters) but I was a camp counsellor on a Performing Arts camp in Pennsylvania back in 2012. It’s around May/June that all the nostalgia and feels for that short yet significant period of my life bubble to the surface, like Jason’s decomposed body in Friday the 13th (1980). Those feels can only be satiated by binge-watching all the best summer camp movies that Netflix and my DVD collection have to offer.
– This post was originally published on 20th May 2016 and has been updated.
Some films about summer camp are strictly PG and kid-friendly. These movies usually evoke blissful memories of roasting marshmallows, playing games like Capture the Flag and swimming in the cool lake on sweltering August afternoons. Other movies about summer camp are categorically not PG and offer a hormone-induced, steamy alternative to the wholesome camp experience. And finally, there are the summer camp horror movies. A bizarre yet thrilling and thriving cult sub-genre that I hope you don’t watch for nostalgia reasons.
Seriously. I genuinely hope you weren’t stabbed by a deranged, grieving mother just as you were about to begin your new job as a summer camp counsellor.
No matter which camp you fall into (pun definitely intended), I’ve narrowed down all of the best and most popular summer camp films and TV shows right here so you can take a trip down memory lane. Let’s jump into my best summer camp movies list!
Best Summer Camp Movies (& TV Shows) List
1. Meatballs (1979)
Director: Ivan Reitman Language: English Run time: 94m 72% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp White Pine in Ontario, Canada
Possibly one of the first summer camp movies was Meatballs (1979), that Bill Murray summer camp movie he shot while still part of the Saturday Night Live line-up. Murray stars as Tripper, head camp counsellor to a bunch of counsellors-in-training (CITs) at Camp North Star. The film follows a rivalry with Camp Mohawk and the personal issues of some of the campers.
Meatballs was a hugely successful film and pretty highly regarded for an American summer camp film. There were a few sequels, too, which I prefer to pretend do not exist.
2. Friday the 13th (1980)
Director: Sean S. Cunningham Language: English Run time: 95m 62% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp No-Be-Bo-Sco in New Jersey
Ahhh the film that spawned a whole sub-genre of summer camp slasher movies with all of the tropes: the crazy old dude with a truck, rural setting, troubling local rumours that no one likes to talk about and the carefree, sinful teenagers.
Friday the 13th is set at Camp Crystal Lake. The camp is reopening after a tragedy 21-years-prior and the camp counsellors are getting everything prepared before the kids arrive. But, unfortunately for them, a mysterious stabber has other plans. This is the film that introduced the acting talents of Kevin Bacon to the world, and we’re all the better for it. This probably isn’t a film to watch if you’re about to go to a camp with a lake, especially if you’re uneasy with mild horror. Maybe wait until afterwards when you’re starting to miss camp…
3. Sleepaway Camp/Nightmare Vacation (1983)
Director: Robert Hiltzik Language: English Run time: 84m 82% Rotten Tomatoes
Another classic stab-happy summer camp movie is Sleepaway Camp/Nightmare Vacation. It’s referred to by both titles, but Sleepaway Camp makes more sense and all of the sequels go by that name.
It’s a believable premise: a young, timid girl is sent to Camp Arawak and promptly, one by one, people start getting murdered. Sh*t like that happens all the time, right? It does in summer camp movies, anyway. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen it yet because I’m not great with horror (it took me long enough to watch Friday the 13th) but it’s supposed to be a genuinely great movie with one of the best twist endings in movie history.
4. SpaceCamp (1986)
Director: Harry Winer Language: English Run time: 107m 45% Rotten Tomatoes
Not knowing much about American summer camps when I was younger, I thought there was a summer camp for everything. Math camp, cheerleading camp, swim camp, circus camp (probably). So many different types of camps! I don’t know if there are many actual space camps anymore, but that’s summer camp movies in the ’80s for you. Going into space seemed like a big deal then.
SpaceCamp shot at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and is about a group of teens (and an adorable Joaquin Phoenix) who are accidentally launched into space during a practice exercise. Unfortunately, SpaceCamp was released only five months after the Challenger disaster and wasn’t very well-received critically. But it’s a good summer camp film to watch if you’re into astronomy and are heading to a specialist science camp.
5. Addams Family Values (1993)
Director: Barry Sonnenfeld Language: English Run time: 94m 76% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Locations: Camp Tulequoia and Sequoia in California
This film is in my top five best summer camp movies of all time. Wednesday Addams is my weirdo soul sister and everything she does might be really sadistic but it’s also very relatable. Addams Family Values is the sequel to the 1991 film The Addams Family about a macabre but tight-knit and loving family. Uncle Fester is seduced by a gold-digging serial killer who, when realising Wednesday is suspicious of her intentions, tricks Morticia and Gomez into shipping Wednesday and her brother Pugsley off to Camp Chippewa.
During their time at summer camp, Wednesday and Pugsley take part in a drowning rescue mission and a Thanksgiving play which both go array. Definitely one of the best summer camp films, even if the camp scenes are only a small part.
6. Camp Nowhere (1994)
Director: Jonathan Price Language: English Run time: 96m 18% Rotten Tomatoes
Okay, so we’ve reached our first summer camp movie dud. With only 18% on Rotten Tomatoes, you may assume Camp Nowhere is an awful film. And you’d be right, Citizen Kane (1941) it is not. But it’s important to note the summer camp movies are less about their quality and more about how they make you feel. So the majority of these movies may not be great, but with an audience score of 58%, the nostalgia and entertainment factors are high and make these films worth watching.
Starring Christopher Lloyd, Camp Nowhere is about a group of kids who decide they don’t want to go to a boring computer camp that their parents want them to go to. Nope, they’re too cool for that. So they decide to make their own adult-free camp. Which is obviously a no good, very bad idea.
7. It Takes Two (1995)
Director: Andy Tennant Language: English Run time: 101m 8% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp Mini-Yo-We in Ontario, Canada
I flipping loved Mary-Kate and Ashley when I was younger and tbh I still do. They’re the ultimate power siblings. I give zero f*cks that It Takes Two is an awful movie. It’s got an audience score of 60% and I needed more summer camp movies for kids on this list instead of just slasher films.
Mary-Kate plays orphan Amanda Lemmon and Ashley plays rich girl Alyssa Calloway. They are identical strangers who meet at summer camp and hatch a plan so they can stay together forever. Yes, the plot is very similar to another superior summer camp movie I will mention soon. But Mary-Kate and Ashley, you guys!! If you’re around 30 and female, you’ll get it.
8. Heavyweights (1995)
Director: Steven Brill Language: English Run time: 100m 29% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp Pinnacle in North Carolina
Another audience favourite, Heavyweights (known as that “fat kid camp movie”) is probably very un-PC nowadays. And for very good reason. But it’s also a lovable, feel-good family comedy-drama that highlights how torturing yourself and using fast, unsafe weightloss methods to “get healthy” are irresponsible. So at least that’s something.
A group of boys are sent to weightloss camp, Camp Hope, under the tutelage of fitness psycho Tony Perkis played by Ben Stiller. The boys have secret stashes of food and try everything to evade Perkis’ efforts. Also stars a young Kenan Thompson, too!
9. The Parent Trap (1998)
Director: Nancy Meyers Language: English Run time: 108m 86% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp Seeley in California
The Parent Trap is hands down one of my favourite films of all time. Not only does it star a ginger girl, but my sister and I used to watch it all the time (I have class and she doesn’t, obvs) so I have really fond memories attached to this film. I’m not forgetting about the original 1961 film, but I’ve not seen it so the 1990s version is the one I’m recommending here.
Annie James is an 11-year-old English girl living with her mother and Hallie Parker is Californian living on a vineyard with her father. The pair serendipitously meet at Camp Walden for girls and realise they are twins. After camp, Annie pretends to be Hallie so she can meet her father in California and Hallie pretends to be Annie so she can meet her mother in London. Hilarity ensues. You absolutely *must* watch this film if you’re heading to camp as a camp counsellor or camper. Or if you just love family-friendly fun! It’s such a great film.
The soundtrack and supporting characters are awesome, too. I cannot hype up this movie enough.
10. Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
Director: David Wain Language: English Run time: 97m 36% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp Towanda in Pennsylvania
The stars aligned when Wet Hot American Summer was made. The cast includes amazing actors like Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Paul Rudd and Elizabeth Banks who are now all superstars. It’s almost unbelievable how many went on to have dazzling careers after this film. Though it was a critical and commercial failure at the time, I believe the cast helped Wet Hot American Summer become a cult favourite summer camp film which has lead to the spin-off Netflix series Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp (2015) and Wet Hot American Summer: Ten Years Later (2017).
Wet Hot American Summer follows the sexual escapades, wild antics and other-worldly occurrences at Camp Firewood in 1981 on the last day of camp leading up to the evening’s talent show. Even though it’s absolutely not a realistic movie (sorry future camp counsellors, your summer will not be this r-rated), Wet Hot American Summer is definitely one of the best summer camp movies on Netflix, no doubt.
11. Camp (2003)
Director: Todd Graff Languages: English, Spanish Run time: 111m 64% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Stagedoor Manor in New York
As a former Type-A theatre directing camp counsellor, I hard relate to Amy Poehler’s character in Wet Hot American Summer. But since Camp is about a performing arts summer camp like mine was, this film is the closest it gets to my real-life summer camp experience. Even down to performing a new play or musical every two weeks.
An unsuccessful broadway songwriter reluctantly takes a job at Camp Ovation for the summer where most of the campers are passionate, misunderstood misfits who just want to perform. The perfect summer camp film to watch if you’re a former theatre nerd, like me. Plus, baby Anna Kendrick!!
12. American Pie Presents: Band Camp (2005)
Director: Steve Rash Language: English Run time: 92m 17% Rotten Tomatoes
I know. The American Pie film series and the straight-to-DVD soft porn sequels are pretty atrocious films. Most of the films on this summer camp movies list aren’t great films, but many have become cult classics. And I do think, in its own way, American Pie Presents: Band Camp is also a cult favourite.
Matt Stifler is the younger brother of the infamous Steve ‘Stifmeister’ Stifler. When he plays a prank on the school band, his punishment is to go to band camp. Of course, he’s soon up to his old tricks by installing secret cameras and attempting to make a film named ‘Bandeez Gone Wild.’ I haven’t seen Band Camp in many years, and I would probably only recommend it to under-21s, but it still deserves a mention. Even I’ve been guilty of paraphrasing “This one time, at band camp…” when boring people with my tales from summer camp.
13. Camp Rock (2008)
Director: Matthew Diamond Language: English Run time: 99m 45% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camps White Pine and Towhee in Ontario, Canada
I was *just* too old to appreciate this Disney Channel movie on upon its release so this is another one of the few films on this list I haven’t seen. Camp Rock and its sequel Camp Rock: The Final Jam (2010) both star The Jonas Brothers and Demi Lovato. Lovato stars as a shy, talented singer working as a kitchen hand with her mother at a music camp called Camp Rock. The Jonas Brothers are playing their alter egos in a fake band called Connect 3 (give me strength) and act as dance counsellors at the camp.
You probably need to be a child or a fan of The Jonas Brothers to properly love Camp Rock, but it’s definitely one of the best summer camp films of the noughties.
14. Fired Up! (2009)
Director: Will Gluck Language: English Run time: 89m 25% Rotten Tomatoes
So far, we’ve had a space camp, weight loss camp, a camp for girls, a performing arts camp, a band camp and a music camp. It’s about time we featured a movie about a cheerleading camp!
Fired Up! is quite similar to Band Camp, unfortunately, in that its another teen sex comedy. It’s about two popular high school football players who decide to head to cheerleading camp instead of football camp. Why? Well for the girls, of course. It’s always about the girls. Fired Up! is not as funny or entertaining as Band Camp, but if that’s your kind of movie then you can make it a double feature.
15. Beaver Falls (2011-2012)
TV Show Language: English Seasons: 2 Episodes: 12 Channel: E4 (UK) Watch now on All4.
I’m adding the British TV show, Beaver Falls, to this list for a few reasons. 1) The first season aired right before I went to summer camp, so it was pivotal in getting me excited about going to the USA to be a camp counsellor. 2) It’s pretty funny and the main actors are great. And 3) It’s British, obviously, and the rest of the other movies are very American (understandably).
Beaver Falls follows three English camp counsellors who mislead a summer camp in California into giving them jobs for the summer in the hopes that they will be able to win over the female American camp counsellors and generally have a good time. Weird that they didn’t give looking after campers much thought. The show only aired on E4 for two seasons but it’s free for British viewers to watch on Channel 4’s streaming service All4. If you’re a future camp counsellor going to work on an American summer camp through Camp America, Camp Leaders or AmeriCamp programmes then you should definitely catch up with Beaver Falls!
16. Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
Director: Wes Anderson Language: English Run time: 94m 93% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Camp Yawgoog in Rhode Island
Though Moonrise Kingdom doesn’t depict a summer camp like most of the other films on this list, it’s still a camp movie. It follows a young boy named Sam who is attending a camp called Camp Ivanhoe which is a Khaki Scout summer camp led by Edward Norton’s Scout Master. He meets a young girl named Suzy and the two of them run off together causing a search party to look for them on an island in New England.
This type of camp is more reminiscent of the time of scouting ‘camps’ we might have in the UK. Though their sock game is much stronger than ours, thanks to director Wes Anderson’s eye for style.
17. The Final Girls (2015)
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson Language: English Run time: 91m 72% Rotten Tomatoes
Expected to see more slasher summer camp films on this list? I’ve included some in a round-up at the end, but I don’t love horror so I haven’t watched many. But The Final Girls really grabbed my attention because it subverts this already very niche camp slasher genre and I bloody love stuff like that. This is a film that true horror fans will appreciate, I think.
The Final Girls is a comedy slasher about some high school students who are transported into an old 1980s slasher movie called Camp Bloodbath. Think of it as a slasher version of Jumanji (1995) and in the same vein as The Cabin in the Woods (2011). I think it’s a very clever premise and a really fun film.
18. Rim of the World (2019)
Director: McG Language: English Run time: 99m 23% Rotten Tomatoes
Summer Camp Shooting Location: Twin Lakes Camp in California
The final summer camp movie I’m recommending is one of the best kid camp movies on Netflix, Rim of the World. It’s a science fiction adventure film that acts as a homage to 1980s films like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It’s Stranger Things at camp.
Rim of the World is also the name of the summer camp which should maybe ring some alarm bells. Four outcast campers with retro bicycles must help save the world when an alien invasion breaks out at camp. Is it as endearing and funny as all of those other 1980s throwback kids adventure films? Maybe not, but kids will love it regardless.
More American Summer Camp Movies: Little Darlings (1980), Gorp (1980), Poison Ivy (1985), Ernest Goes to Camp (1987), Camp Cucamonga (1990), Indian Summer (1993), The Baby-Sitters Club (1995), Camp Stories (1997), Happy Campers (2001), Bunks (2013), Standing Up (2013), Stage Fright (2014), Camp Takota (2014), Once I Was a Beehive (2015), Camp Cool Kids (2017)
And those are some of the best summer camp movies and TV shows set in the USA! Have you watched any of these movies about summer camp or would you add any to the list? Let me know in the comments below!