YMCA Camp Cristina has always been a rich resource for the children of Hillsborough County. But the recent renovation of a 10-acre water park, including the addition of a beach area and a 100-foot tandem water slide called Wet Willie, has made the 65-acre park even better.
"The camp has a magical bubble around it," said Darren Dannelly, the camp's operations director since 2009. "You kind of get lost and forget where you are."
The water park gives campers the opportunity of canoeing, kayaking and fishing, beach play and swimming, in addition to sliding down the giant slide the only one of its kind in the state, Dannelly said.
Dannelly brought the idea of adding Wet Willie from North Carolina, where the slides are plentiful.
"We try to add something new every year," he said.
The YMCA committed $80,000 to the renovation project, which included building a tower for Wet Willie, relocating the canoe docks, adding new fishing docks and, through a partnership with the Florida Fish, Wildlife and Conservation Commission, a program to go with them.
Stocked with catfish and blue gill, the camp's spring-fed lake is becoming a training ground for future anglers.
"I caught a big twig today," said 6-year-old Lucas Bashner, wearing a broad smile on a recent day at camp. "It almost pulled my whole pole in."
Nearby, other campers in his group were practicing their casting techniques onshore in an exercise called Backyard Bass.
Camp Cristina's programs and activities are geared to giving kids the chance to do things they've never done before: learning to swim, fish, shoot an arrow or ride a horse.
Perhaps more importantly, Dannelly said, they learn how. For example, there are actually 11 steps to properly launching an arrow. And if the kids learn to ride a horse, they also learn to feed and care for it.
The camp has more than 450 kids in first through eighth grades and 55 counselors to supervise them. Most go to traditional day camp, where they get to experience the outdoors in a safe environment. They get to choose activities such as riding a zip line, playing paintball or rock climbing and learn new skills that instill confidence and self-esteem.
Kevin Coomber of Valrico, 12, said paint ball is his favorite camp activity.
"I like the charge and chase of it," he said, as her took a break from the games. "There's some really cool things in there [the camp's tactical arena]. It's really good exercise, and I've made some new friends."
That's what Camp Cristina is all about, said Dannelly.
"We want every camper to meet their new best friend," he said. "We're all about relationships here."
In addition to regular day camp, Camp Cristina offers programs for teens, those who'd like to become camp counselors and middle school campers who need advanced physical challenges. There are also more than 20 specialty camps Survivor, Weird Science, Paint Like Picasso, Chef School and more plus sports and after-school camps.
Prices range from $140 to $185, depending on the camp. YMCA members receive a discount, and scholarships are available based on income.
Swim lessons are an additional $25; however no one is turned away for an inability to pay, said Kathy Rabon, a YMCA spokeswoman. Funds are provided from community donations to cover those costs.
Kim Cackowski of Riverview has two sons attending camp: Liam, 12, and Evan, 10.
"They've been coming to Camp Cristina for years," she said. "My oldest is extremely shy, and his experiences here have helped him with his confidence and self esteem. Evan just loves meeting new friends and playing gaga ball. Both of them adore the counselors.
"It's definitely worth the investment."
Camp Cristina is at 9840 Balm Riverview Road, Riverview. For additional information, call (813) 677-8400 or visit www.ymcacampcristina.org.