LARIMER COUNTY — As Colorado’s rugged high country is only now emerging from a cold, wet spring and early summer, campers at the intersection of Boo-Boo Bypass and Ranger Road nudge up against Mother Nature while wrapped in the warm amenities of home.
The environment is more “glamping” than camping at Jellystone Park Camp-Resort near Estes Park, where visitors trade traditional sleeping-bag-under-the-tree experiences for either a well-appointed cabin with clean linens or a 40-foot RV decked out with a shower and a flat-screen TV.
The Larimer County resort is one of three Jellystone campgrounds in Colorado and is part of a franchise network. Jellystone, which started in Sturgeon Bay, Wis., in 1969, will celebrate its 50th anniversary on July 4. And although the parks are fronted by two long-faded cartoon fixtures — Yogi Bear and his sidekick, Boo-Boo Bear — all 85 Jellystone franchises in the United States and Canada combined still lure more than 2.5 million visitors a year.
Rick and Shelly Spear, who own the 35-acre campground, attribute the enduring popularity of their Jellystone outpost not necessarily to its location in the forest, its winding trails or its relatively easy access to Rocky Mountain National Park, but, rather, to the renovations they’ve done to encourage fun and comfort.
“I guess you could say what we do here is glamping on a pretty large scale,” Shelly Spear said.
Jellystone campers can karaoke, play laser tag, soak in an outdoor heated pool or play mini-golf. Plenty of other activities are available, and on the right weekend, campers can celebrate Mardi Gras, the ’80s or Bigfoot, or partake in a chocolate lover’s festival.
Corporate campgrounds such as Jellystone and its much larger competitor — Kampgrounds of America — have learned that today’s campers need more than stargazing to keep them interested, KOA spokesman Mike Gast said.
“You don’t just pitch a tent anymore,” he said. “Campers want to be entertained.”
Over the past five years, more than 7.2 million U.S. households have started camping, bringing the total to a high of 78.8 million, according to the 2019 North American Camping Report, an annual, independent study supported by KOA.
An influx of younger and more-diverse campers, including millennials, are largely responsible for the uptick, the report says. All are looking for a nontraditional experience, and more than half are interested in either glamping or hanging out in a van or RV, Gast said.
“It’s just an entirely different outlook than in the past,” he said. “More families with kids are coming out, and they are not necessarily interested in just hiking or exploring.”
KOA, the world’s largest system of public campgrounds, has more than 500 locations across Canada and the U.S., including 27 in Colorado. Five years ago, the company began revamping its offerings to reflect the changed attitudes of campers.
The result is that campers can enjoy three levels of camping experiences, including a resort-style stay that features deluxe cabins, pools and activities led by camp employees.
KOA still offers sites for people who truly want to get away from it all, Gast said. “Grandma and granddad can enjoy themselves without dealing with other people’s kids at KOA,” he said.
The Spears bought the Jellystone campground nine years ago from Rick’s parents. They renovated and expanded the park to include additional electric and water hookups for tent and truck campers, smaller pop-up campers and bigger RVs. They saw revenues and nightly camper visits climb over the past three years.
Last month, after a Mother’s Day opening, Jellystone recorded 720 camper-night visits, compared with 650 the same time last year. Those Jellystone campers opted not to huddle in tents during the cool May, instead opting for either a homey cabin or an RV rental, which is also offered at Jellystone.
“We have a lot of things to offer campers and their families and places they can stay warm but still enjoy the outdoors,” Rick Spear said.
On a recent morning at Jellystone, kids in shorts and T-shirts bounced on a giant jump pad before heading up to the arcade, their fingers sticky and bellies full after a huge, parkwide pancake breakfast.
Later, the children and their parents could ride on a fire truck or play laser tag. They could also visit the Ranger Station to peruse T-shirts, hats and other goodies for sale.
A quick hike might be in the offing or maybe a movie at the outdoor theater. At night, they could retire to one of the park’s 11 bare-bones tent sites, with water and electrical hookups, along with a nearby fire pit and picnic table. All at a cost of $53 a night.
Or they might enjoy a three-bed, three-bath cabin — one of 26 in the park — with a loft, large kitchen, master-bath suite and clean linens. There is also satellite TV and DVD players. Cost for all that is $471 a night.
WiFi is available throughout Jellystone, although guests must rough it some: no streaming services.
Littleton resident Shawn Mitchell, clad in a T-shirt and shorts, found his 10-day stay with his two kids, ages 9 and 6, almost ideal. “There was a pool, bouncy castle, laser tag, a great arcade, lots of things for them to do.” he said. “I was here last year, and we’ll probably be back next year.”
Rick Spear said at least 15 acres of the park is closed to development because of its sheer, rocky nature — but it’s open to hikers. “If people want to get away from it all,” he said, “they can do it there.”
As part of their series of upgrades, the Spears reworked Rick’s parents’ three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot house into a family cabin to rent for huge occasions. “It can sleep about 14, so it’s perfect for family reunions,” he said.
To accommodate bigger RVs, the Spears converted 13 campsites to offer 50-amp electrical service. “We had to make it easier for the size of the new RVs out there,” Rick Spear said. “The 20 amps we provided before just didn’t cut it.”
There are 24 campsites with water and 24-amp electrical connections for tents and small RVs, Shelly said. Jellystone also boasts a Yogi amphitheater, two playgrounds and a basketball court — as well as Christmas in July.
“That’s always fun, lots of singing and fun,” said the Spears’ 15-year-old daughter, Allie, who works at the park along with 17 other employees.
The park closes in late September — but not before a celebration of Halloween with several events, the Spears said.
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Overseeing it all are cartoon cutouts of Yogi and Boo-Boo. And they can come to life and visit a park for a special occasion such as a birthday, Shelly Spear said.
Many Jellystone visitors have small children who are clueless about the picnic-basket-thieving bear duo and the adventures of their 1960s cartoon show peers, Ranger Smith and Cindy Bear.
But when the kids see their images, they are immediately drawn to them, said Trent Hershenson, vice president of marketing for Leisure Systems Inc., which issues franchises for Jellystone Park.
“Their eyes just light up, and that is what we are shooting for,” he said. “(Ages) 4 to 12, that is our sweet spot.”
Jellystone Park has also been able to keep its entertainment fresh and contemporary, Hershenson said. Entrepreneur magazine placed the Jellystone franchise at No. 202 in its 2019 ranking of best franchise businesses. The magazine cited the company for its outstanding performance in areas such as unit growth, financial strength and stability, and brand power.
Rick Spear said his family joined the Jellystone franchise in 1997 because they needed to stand out among the 11 other campgrounds in and around Estes Park. “And it worked,” he said.
A campsite in Montrose joined the Jellystone Park system in 2011. The Larkspur site joined Jellystone in 2009. In 2016, Sun Communities bought the Larkspur park in 2016 and is starting a massive expansion, which is expected to double the capacity and size of the park, Hershenson said.
Sun owns mobile home communities and also is developing the massive River Run Resort under development in Granby, where it expects to have 1,100 RV slips, campsites and cabins.
Making it memorable
The Spears said they are eyeing other improvements for their park. Jellystone franchise owners often talk about new games and activities that keep people coming back.
“That’s just it: We want Jellystone to be memorable for people,” Rick Spear said. “We want people to remember the time we shot at each other with lasers on a dark trail in Jellystone. That was a blast.”
Above Jellystone, which rests at an altitude of 7,000 feet, there still is snow at some of the more than 260 permitted wilderness campsites at neighboring Rocky Mountain National Park, park spokeswoman Kyle Patterson said. Heavy snow and frigid temperatures on the first day of summer closed Trail Ridge Road, which rises to 11,500 feet.
Visitors and Estes Park residents should appreciate Jellystone’s accessibility, Estes Park Mayor Todd Jirsa said.
“It’s a wonderful place to visit and enjoy, and it has just about anything for people who want to get outdoors,” Jirsa said. “And it gives kids a taste for the outdoors. And for just a little bit, they are running around and enjoying themselves and their faces are not glued to a cellphone.”
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