Youth Outside | Unlocking Adventure: The Seattle Day Camp Lottery

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, read our approach and intention behind the lottery registration process for Seattle Day Camp, and apply for the lottery today.
Tailor Dolgin Tailor Dolgin
Camps Program Manager
January 09, 2024
Youth Outside | Unlocking Adventure: The Seattle Day Camp Lottery
A 2023 day camper bouldering on the South Plaza at the Seattle Program Center. All photos by Mountaineers staff.

Being someone who hasn't yet experienced parenthood, I'm unfamiliar with the most challenging aspects of raising children. However, as a summer camp professional, I do have a backstage pass to what appears to be one of the more stressful parts of being a Seattle area guardian: camp registration. For camps in the Seattle region, summer camp enrollment can begin as early as January. In the thick of winter, with summer far behind, families play scheduling Tetris to guarantee childcare and transformative summer experiences for their kids.

In 2021, I experienced my first Mountaineers Summer Camp registration day. Within five minutes of registration opening, the website crashed. Our youth staff triaged camp registration requests, enrolling campers where and when we could. When the dust settled, we were able to meet the scheduling needs of some families, but not many. As we wrapped up what had been, up to that point, the most stressful day of my professional career, one thing became clear: we needed to revise our process.

The problem: Website capacity and program interest

From 2011 to 2021, our camp programs ran registration in an open enrollment, first-come, first-serve model. For many years this was successful. However, as program capacity grew, so did website traffic on registration morning. Families familiar with camp were coming back to register, and new families were signing up to experience Mountaineers Summer Camps for themselves.

Eventually, the number of camp families registering for programs swelled beyond our website’s capacity. It became nearly impossible to run registration without the website crashing. While this made it difficult for families to register, it was also challenging for staff who were trying to support the process. When the website froze, staff couldn’t access rosters or help troubleshoot questions. No campers could be enrolled until traffic relented, which led to unfair registration conditions. Rather than true first-come, first-serve access, some folks were able to navigate through the website freeze and enroll their camper on luck alone. Others knew they could call our staff to get on a list and offered registration when the website restarted. New families, however, were unfamiliar with these back channels and continued to miss registration opportunities. Ultimately, the process led to unfair and inequitable registration experiences across the board.

Disco Park - Fort.jpg2023 day campers building a fort at Discovery Park.

The solution: Innovation and equity

Our goal in updating the registration process was twofold: first, alleviate stress on the website to prevent crashes; second, create a more accessible and equitable process. Implementing some form of lottery seemed like the best place to start.

In the fall of 2021, we piloted a Seattle Day Camp Registration Lottery. We created an application process through a survey format, beta tested the survey by asking our office staff to enroll their pets like campers, solicited feedback, finalized an application process and timeline for families, and then proceeded with our marketing efforts. In January 2022, the moment arrived: it was time to run the lottery.

The lottery accepted applications for two weeks. Rather than having to log in to our website at 9am and rush to enroll campers, this new timeframe gave families plenty of time to explore our camp offerings before applying. At the end of the enrollment window, we received over 400 lottery applications. After processing applications, Seattle Day Camp was over two thirds full heading into February’s open enrollment for other youth programs. As a result, the website experienced significantly reduced traffic on registration morning, alleviating the strain on other camp programs and preventing website crashes caused by Seattle Day Camp registrations. Before camp even began, the new lottery process felt like a success.

The updated enrollment process allowed us to serve more families. In 2021, before the lottery process was enacted, roughly two thirds of campers were families that had previously attended one of our programs. After enacting the lottery in 2022, we saw the number of returners shift. Between one third and one half of our campers were still returners, but we were additionally able to serve a couple hundred new families over the course of the summer, a trend we saw continue in summer 2023 as the lottery helped establish an equitable registration baseline for camp. The increase in lottery applications from 2022 to 2023, from 400 to 600, also reflects the increase in community members served. While we love seeing returning campers and witnessing their growth each year, catering more to returners than to new families caused us to miss out on mission-driven opportunities to connect the next generation with the outdoors. Our updated lottery system allows us to share the transformative power of the outdoors with even more families.

That said, the Seattle Summer Day Camp Registration Lottery is not perfect. Each year we learn something new. In 2022, we learned that if we don’t keep up with waitlists and check in with families later in the spring, we end up struggling to fill camp spots that open in late spring or early summer. And in 2023, we learned that just because something goes well once, doesn’t mean results will look the same the following year. Due to increased interest and access from 2022 to 2023, traffic on the website during registration morning once again increased, creating small website crashes. While not the big slowdown we’d seen before, the registration experience was still affected by echoes of registration processes past.

Scrambling Rocks.jpg2023 day campers posing for a photo on the South Plaza.

Summer 2024 and beyond

Looking ahead to summer 2024, we’re excited to continue refining this registration process to ensure equitable accommodation for as many families as possible while also maintaining peace of mind for staff and quality of programs. To do this, we intend to continue with the registration lottery for Seattle Day Camp while ensuring the process doesn’t impact registration for other youth programs. We've also invested in our website to increase performance and server capacity, which will hopefully help popular registration days across our programs.

So, where does this all leave us? In the end, this registration lottery process has been a huge success, and we still have more to learn. We expect ongoing popularity among families in the greater Seattle area and an increasing pool of returning families in the future. Since these variables are clearly here to stay, we’re eager to build upon this success, improve our approach, and further enhance the Seattle Day Camp experience for our hundreds of camp families in the future.

Seattle Day Camp Lottery is Open

Want to join us at camp this summer? All campers interested in Seattle Day Camp, new or returning, have the chance to enroll in one week of camp through our lottery process in 2024. Applications will be accepted for the first two weeks of January. 

Apply for Seattle Day Camp

Can’t wait for summer? We offer Mid-Winter and Spring Break Camps at our Seattle Program Center in February and April. Registration for both is now open.

Questions about summer camps? Reach out to our team at

This article originally appeared in our winter 2024 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our magazine archive.

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