Ocean Lakes

People wait to ride a water slide at the Sandy Harbor Water Park at Ocean Lakes Family Campground just south of Myrtle Beach. 

RANDALL HILL, SPECIAL TO THE POST AND COURIER

MYRTLE BEACH — The starfish is inescapable.

He grins, from behind thick-rimmed sunglasses, down to visitors as they enter Ocean Lakes Family Campground. He poses with them, thumb in the air, for photos. His likeness and his name — Sandy — adorn numerous, distinctly un-camp-like amenities: the shops and laundromat in the town center and the miniature clock tower across from it; and the 350-gallon bucket inside the water park that soaks squealing children below.

And yet, for all his gregarious omnipresence, even Sandy Starfish can't hold a candle to his human guests.

There are shirtless preteen boys on bikes and moms at the wheels of "golf cars," as they call them here. There are retirees lounging in the shade of their RVs. There are young men with tattooed arms and old men with granddaughters in tow. And altogether, on a good day, there are 30,000 of them.

For two weeks in most of the past 25 summers, that population has included the Charleston-area family of Jude Roberson, who can't comprehend the idea of someone having a negative experience at the campground.

"If they don't have a good memory when they are here, they were never gonna be able to have one to start with," Roberson, 65, said.

Ocean Lakes is nominally a campground, but there are no bear-fearing backpackers here. Beyond that, the campground opens onto whole neighborhoods of houses, swarms of customized golf carts and row after row of Jaycos, Salems and Fleetwoods recreation vehicles, many of them gleaming new purchases.

The largest in a string of campgrounds harnessing a resort-like atmosphere, it feels like a beach town unto itself.

But to some, it's also an American idyll, where neighbors aren't strangers and kids can roam free and year after year, generation after generation, people come back.

Finding home on vacation

Myrtle Beach's largest resort-style campgrounds take up a strip of land about 2 miles long between U.S. Highway 17 and the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean Lakes, with 3,400-plus sites, sits at the south end of this line. The 1,500-site Pirateland Family Camping Resort, its closest point of comparison, is at the north. Between them is Lakewood Camping Resort, which, with about 1,100 sites, is smaller but has similar trappings.

A few more minutes up the highway would take vacationers to Myrtle Beach State Park, which offers a far more conventional definition of camping — its webpage features an image of a tent and a link to "more information about copperheads."

But Vickie Fuller, the administrative manager at Pirateland, said many visitors want and expect the arcades and the water slides — amenities closer to a hotel than a hostel.

Beyond the resort-like amenities, though, these camping resorts have something else in common: they all highlight their family-friendliness. Ocean Lakes points to humble beginnings: its founders built the campground with their five daughters, opened it in 1971 with 30 sites and a bathhouse, and steadily built it into a dominant vacation draw. The family still owns it.

Tradition and sentimentality play a role for visitors, too, Fuller said, and parents tend to want to pass experiences to the next generation.

"Parents that had special memories of things they did when they were young — they want to give their kids those memories," she said.

And though vacation spots may often be synonymous with stays of a week or two, these campgrounds incorporate the long term. The vast majority of the 2,560 sites on Ocean Lakes' 310 acres are annually leased permanent structures — mostly houses, some expanded or converted RVs, Ocean Lakes spokeswoman Dawn Bryant said.

The campground itself rents about 300 of those sites. Of the rest, some leaseholders rent out, and some use them as summer or winter homes. And a few live there year-round, having found, in this ever-regenerating and expanding community, a home.

No strangers

The bears may not roam Ocean Lakes, but outside an RV across the campground, there is a 12-week-old golden retriever pup named Tater.

She rests in the arms of 45-year-old Billy Moore, vacationing from an Atlanta suburb with his wife and daughter, as well as a brother- and sister-in-law from Brooklyn. Moore's friend Ronnie McKenzie is parked one site over. McKenzie's mother, Paula, sits in front of a large fan and knits socks.

McKenzie's family usually vacations at nearby Pirateland, he says. But his daughters wanted a water park, his wife saw an ad for Ocean Lake's year-old Sandy Harbor with its three-story tall slides, their lines endlessly repopulated by enthusiastic men with Harley-Davidson tattoos and by kids who barely have inches on the mats and tubes they ride down.

His praise for the campground is qualified, though he was irked when he was scolded by Ocean Lakes employees about the color-changing LED lights on the golf cart he brought with him. But the cost is agreeable — even in the peak season, site rentals top out at $80 to $90 per night, Bryant said, cheaper than most hotels — and the environment has been welcoming where strangers often chat up each other.

"Shoot, with those dogs, he talks to everyone," McKenzie says, gesturing to Moore.

"The puppy, she's a big attraction," Moore agrees.

"I've never met a stranger, so I talk to everybody," McKenzie says.

"That's a good way to be," Paula says, and they all agree.

And even though McKenzie's only been at the campground a few days, he says he could see himself moving into one of those houses after retirement.

"I'd be one of those guys yelling at the golf carts."

Regeneration

The man in charge of those vehicles has witnessed Ocean Lakes' evolution from the inside.

Golf cart manager and self-described "beach bum" Greg Bender has spent nearly his whole life at Ocean Lakes. His parents got a place here in 1974, where the family spent summers and weekends. After he graduated from high school, he did light maintenance at a condo complex across the highway, until a friend convinced him to work in Ocean Lakes' beachfront arcade. This summer, he'll turn 48.

"If I look back 30 years ago and said, 'I'll still be standing here,' I'd have said, 'No way,'" he says. "Being able to work in an atmosphere where you meet people every day — I have built relationships in the past 40 years I could have never made somewhere else."

Bender marks Hurricane Hugo, in 1989, as a turning point for him and for the campground. The beachfront arcade — and by extension, his job — had been decimated. He worked with maintenance crews clearing the damage. Eventually, a manager asked if he'd take a job as a golf cart mechanic.

Meanwhile, new zoning regulations meant changes to the houses within Ocean Lakes, he says. New homes built on pilings could fit more people — 12 to 20, instead of six or eight. The campground's population ballooned.

By the time he took over the golf carts, the rental fleet had grown from a few dozen to 250. Then it kept expanding by more than three times to 900.

And so it seems Ocean Lakes shares something with its invertebrate mascot: when it loses a limb, it can grow one right back.

Things change, things stay the same

Three generations crowd around a picnic table on a recent Sunday afternoon. When they first came here, they were just two generations, and 25 years younger, and where there are concrete pads for the RVs now, then there was only dust.

Jude Roberson points out the blue Ocean Lakes registration sticker on the side of his golf cart. It cost $30. An old sticker on the opposite side cost $10 at the time. One, still stuck on an old golf cart of his, cost $1.75.

But some things stay the same. His daughters have their own kids now, but he still feels safe letting them roam free in the campground. And the past is preserved: he hangs on to those memories of his daughters as children, decorating the golf cart for the Fourth of July.

Getting a spot here isn't as easy as it used to be, either, and Roberson says the family considered trying another campground this year.

"I said, 'No, we just pull right back in here and book it like we always do,'" he says. "That wasn't us."

Their site rental ends a few days from this early June Sunday, and Jude and his wife, Marie, want just a few more days — just through the next weekend. They hold onto hope something might open up.

And whenever they do leave, Sandy Starfish will watch over them, smiling. People always seem to come back.

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