For hundreds of parents throughout Howard County, "Midnight Madness" takes place tonight.
These parents will stay up until midnight or set their alarms. They will be at their computers at 11:59:59, password memorized, hands poised over their keyboards, ready to type. And at the stroke of midnight, they will log on to the Department of Recreation and Parks Web site (www.co.ho.md.us/RAP/RAP_HomePage.htm) and start enrolling their kids in summer camps.
One of those parents will be Michelle Johnson of Ellicott City, who hopes to get her sons, Kyle, 10, and Alex, 8, into several summer camps. "I actually set my alarm to wake up," she said.
Like other parents, she has found that only a few camps fit her family's busy summer schedule of work, travel and swim teams for the boys. She also tries to coordinate with other parents, so that Kyle and Alex are in camp with friends.
"I really have limited choices as far as time frames," she said. "When you find a camp that meets their interests and is amenable to your work schedule, you want to make sure you stay up and get your child in there," she said.
This Midnight Madness began three years ago, when the Department of Recreation and Parks began offering online registration, said Gary Arthur, the department's director.
"From the numbers that we get, we knew there was a culture out there," he said.
In the previous two years, by the time the department opened at 8 a.m. the first day of registration, an average of 500 camp slots have been filled, he said.
The driving force behind Midnight Madness is that the camps are popular, and space is limited. Sports and other programs do not inspire this kind of behavior, said Arthur, but many parents are convinced they would not be able to get into a class if they waited until morning to register either by phone or in person.
But why begin registration at midnight? "We could certainly, I guess, make it at 8 o'clock," said Arthur. "But we'd get complaints." People would say registration is supposed to begin Feb. 2, and that means 12:01, he said.
Miranda Markas of Ellicott City clearly remembers her first experience with online camp registration, when she signed up her daughter, Joselyn, for an American Girl camp for the summer 2004.
"Joselyn really, really, really wanted to get into American Girls," she said. "I realized how many people were talking about it," and she suspected the only way to make sure her daughter got a slot was to register at midnight.
Staying awake was no problem. "I'm a night owl," she said. But she remembers being nervous about using a credit card online. "It was a serious decision for us," she said.
Still, she was glad she took the plunge. Through the online system, it is possible to see how many slots are available in any camp, and the American Girl program, a weeklong, half-day camp of crafts and stories based on the American Girl books, filled up quickly, she said.
Arthur said he does not know of any camps that reached capacity in the wee hours before the department opened to take phone and walk-in registrations. But last year, six camps were filled by 8:30 a.m., he said. "So if you got there at 8, you still had a shot."
But you'd have to be lucky.
Even though the department puts every warm body it has -- nine full-timers and seven part-timers -- on the phones the first week of registration, getting through remains difficult. "The phone rings continually the first day," Arthur said. And if all the lines are in use, the caller hears a message saying to call back.
"You phone over and over and over throughout the morning," said Markas, recalling the days before online registration. "It was luck whether you would actually get a person on the phone."
Before online registration, the first sign-up day would be a mob scene, said Arthur, with as many as 250 parents standing outside the department, registration forms in hand. "In general, the use of the Internet has really started to change the culture of our registration program," he said. "I'm an old-timer. In '78 [the year he started], we used to have lines of people lined up at our door when we opened."
Not all camps offer online registration. The Columbia Association takes registrations only by mail, said Charlie Thomas, camp manager for the association. Registration for Columbia residents began Jan. 16, and everyone else could sign up, starting yesterday.
The Columbia Association might begin online registration as early as next year, he said. But it seems unlikely that Midnight Madness will come to the Columbia Association simply because its camps don't fill as quickly as rec and parks' camps.
But camps with limited space always will inspire drastic measures. Girl Scout camps, for instance, bring parents out at all hours to wait in line and register. Some parents, including Jean Hough of Ellicott City, have opted to volunteer at the camp so they can skip the line and guarantee their children will get in.
Is it worth it? That's an individual decision. One year, Hough said, she spent an afternoon using pinking shears to cut 200 rectangles out of cereal boxes for a craft project.
"You do a lot for your kids," she said.