Every summer, school-aged children from neighborhoods like Dover Shores and Corona del Mar board the Balboa Island Ferry and travel together to the beach. They wear massive backpacks and matching red and blue clothes — all from a marquee surfwear brand, to be sure.
Parents have to buy the expensive clothes and pay much more if they want their kids to join this group. These youngsters don't belong to a private swimming club or yacht club, but the city-run Junior Lifeguards program.
Newport Beach has the most expensive junior lifeguard program among its neighbors and other prominent Southern California beach cities.
It can cost more than twice as much as a comparable program run by Huntington Beach, and a look at the differences provides a glimpse into Newport's culture: more elaborate clothes, higher salaries for managers and a willingness to spare no expense.
"I'm assuming we're getting what we pay for," said Janine McDonald, a fortysomething chief executive of a management consultancy who brought her daughter for the first time to Jr. Guards last week. "The program has a brand and its own reputation … I think I'm paying for top-quality staff."
Indeed, Newport employs year-round guard supervisors with pensions and high salaries to administer the program, while Huntington Beach uses seasonal program coordinators.
That, combined with a lower student-to-instructor ratio in Newport, means the city spends about 50% more per student on its instructors than Huntington.
"It's a great deal, not because of the amenities, but because of the educational opportunity," said Huntington Marine Safety Chief Kyle Lindo.
Amenities in Newport include a uniform package with a choice of three hats, a towel and a swim cap, while Huntington students are limited to visors, and their towels are optional. Huntington Beach-based Quiksilver even makes custom Hawaiian shirts for Newport's hot dog dinner — so the instructors can appear in style.
"We are confident that Quiksilver will provide [uniforms] that will satisfy our participants and their discerning parents," lifeguard administrators wrote in a staff report recommending that the City Council approve the contract with the apparel maker.
Jennifer Schultz, spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Fire Department, said the uniforms exemplify the Newport program: They are "all-inclusive" and "extraordinary." The Fire Department oversees the lifeguards.
"We just made it an exceptional program, and we determine the cost from there," Schultz said.
Newport residents pay $675, while Huntington residents pay $550 for a program that has about 50 more hours per summer.
When broken down by hour, it's about 85% more expensive in Newport.
Non-residents pay even more. Newport's out-of-town cost difference is higher than nearby cities, bringing the fee to $785. That's more than double the per-hour price than in Huntington.
Price notwithstanding, the programs have many similarities.
Both cities attend regional competitions and take field trips to places such as Santa Catalina Island and water parks. They each have an annual hot dog roast and hold a marquee event: the Pier Swim in Huntington and the Monster Mile in Newport. The program fees cover these costs.
The two day camps run about seven or eight weeks, but Huntington's is five days per week to Newport's four.
In total, Newport spends about $1 million each year on its 1,250 students, and Huntington spends about $515,000 on its 1,000 or so students.
Both cities recover almost all of their operating and personnel costs from participants.