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Local campgrounds plan for another busy season with activities returning

Local campgrounds operated under a lot of pandemic restrictions last summer, but that didn't stop them from being busy — and demand is looking just as high this summer, if not higher.

"The family took over the campground 20 years ago, and it was our busiest season ever," said Katie Hornat, manager of Laurel Lock Campground in Oakdale. "We had campsites filled during the week, we had all our seasonal sites booked, it was crazy. Everyone was so happy to be here, being outdoors."

The campground also got a lot of business from people trying to go to state parks only to find them closed.

Last April, Hornat said Laurel Lock wouldn't be hosting Friday night horseshoes, Saturday night cornhole, hayrides or potlucks during the 2020 season.

But she said last week that Laurel Lock is "resuming a relatively normal event schedule," including concerts throughout the summer, horseshoe tournaments, hayrides, a magician, a "campsite crawl," a 55th anniversary party for the campground, and an end-of-season potluck dinner.

Hornat said all the seasonal sites are booked again this year, and there's a waiting list for next year. She is not seeing as many weekday bookings as last year, bust most weekends are booked up.

At Hidden Acres Campground in Preston, owner Bill Migliaccio said that oddly enough, there's a change from the pandemic he likes: Hidden Acres reduced the number of guests campers can bring, which "makes for a quieter campground."

But he said last summer was stressful, as some people thought COVID-19 restrictions were too strict and others found them too lenient.

He thinks business is up this summer, though he noted business has gradually been climbing over the years anyway.

As for activities, Migliaccio said "it looks like it's going to be business as usual this year," with DJs hired for outdoor music, hayrides, and the craft shop open.

At Mystic KOA Holiday, General Manager Allison Lago said the site had to operate at 50% capacity last year and sold out several weekends throughout the summer. She saw a lot of local people camping, "instead of maybe taking that big trip out west," and a lot of first-time campers.

Saskia Boogman, spokesperson for Kampgrounds of America Inc., said in a statement that the proportion of first-time campers in 2020 was five times greater than in 2019, though registrations across the KOA system were down 1.4% from the year before. For this year, the May KOA Monthly Research Report showed that 72% of campers plan to camp in their own state.

Lago said Mystic KOA is already ahead this year from the same time last year; the deluxe cabins are already booked on weekends through the end of August, which doesn't usually happen until the beginning of summer. The campground is open at 100% capacity this year.

On the phone last week, Lago said she was looking out her window and saw three girls bouncing on the trampoline-style jumping pillow, something that wasn't open last summer. Mystic KOA is also bringing back outdoor movies and bingo.

Lago said people had to sign up for a pool slot last summer, while Acorn Acres Campground owner Scott Gladstone also noted that staff had to limit the number of people who could go in the pool.

This year, Gladstone said the Bozrah campground plans on having some weather-dependent activities throughout the summer, but staff have not yet made a commitment to open the store or indoor community areas.

He said he will be looking for guidance from the Connecticut Campground Owners Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Director of State Parks Tom Tyler said last week that demand is high for camping reservations, with state parks fully booked for Memorial Day weekend. He said there is still lots of opportunity for people to make reservations for the rest of the season, and all 1,400-plus campsites are in the reservation system and available to the public.

Tyler said almost all COVID-19 restrictions in place last year have been removed for camping at state parks, though people are still required to wear a mask when they're inside a bathroom or other buildings on park grounds.

At Laurel Lock, Hornat said unvaccinated people need to wear a mask in the recreation hall but vaccinated people don't, which is based on the honor system.

Hidden Acres isn't requiring masks outdoors at all, but staff are wearing them indoors regardless of vaccination status, though Migliaccio noted "very little happens indoors."

KOA has asked staff to keep wearing masks indoors. At Acorn Acres, Gladstone said no employees are inside, but staff are encouraged to wear masks if they're around other people.

With many businesses struggling to hire, campgrounds also vary in whether they have enough staff.

Hornat said Laurel Lock staff have "just worked really, really hard" and are exhausted because staffing has been an issue. Lago said she thinks she can manage with what she's got at Mystic KOA, though she noted people in this industry always want extra hands.

Migliaccio is doing fine on staffing at Hidden Acres, commenting, "I fortunately have a great staff that wants to return every year, and I am blessed. They are the best employees."

Gladstone said staffing hasn't been an issue at Acorn Acres, crediting manager Priscilla Sherman with retaining a lot of the people and noting that a lot of employees work "because they just absolutely love the camping environment."

e.moser@theday.com

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