Instructors at the school get in the water with new skiers all summer.
Instructors at the school get in the water with new skiers all summer. - 

Kai Ryssdal: The modern summer vacation can be pretty much anything: A trip overseas, a week at home just hanging out.

Or what vacations, in a way, used to be. Holidays built around what you might call the traditional model. Small resort towns that rely on families in the summertime to keep going. Resort towns that're also struggling to keep pace.

Marketplace's Eve Troeh took a drive up to Lake Arrowhead, Calif.


Eve Troeh: This scene's been repeated every summer for 66 years.

Instructor: Keep your arms straight, buddy!

A tan, muscled instructor jumps in the water with a pale, skinny kid at McKenzie's Water Ski School.

Instructor: All right, go!

The kid wobbles and shakes...then stands up. As he speeds away, another boat pulls in. Tammy Reeves holds up her iPhone to capture the moment.

Tammy Reeves: My daughter Amanda and son David are water skiing for the first time.

Troeh: How old are you?

Amanda: Seven and a half.

Troeh: How was it?

Amanda: Really fun.

They've been here a week, rented a house near the lake.

Reeves: We're going to grab some brunch up here, as a family, and head back to Orange County.

That's about two hours' drive away. Lake Arrowhead was designed for just this kind of escape from L.A., says longtime resident Andy Center.

Andy Center: People developed this area in the teens and 20s for that huge growing population, not just the city of L.A. but the region.

Center runs AAA Vacation Rentals, the first building you see driving into Lake Arrowhead Village. Its white turret and brown beams match the Bavarian air of everything else nestled in the pines. His office was the headquarters, where one company sold thousands of lots for vacation homes.

Center: Or even camp sites. They actually sold lots that were for tents.

Compare that to the multi-million-dollar fortresses that circle the lake today. The ones the tour guide points out aboard the Lake Arrowhead Queen.

Tour guide: Patch of grass to the left. They have a tee box in there. That's their driving range.

He's careful not to mention current owners' names. A lot of real estate has gone up for sale here, since the recession. Mansions and modest cabins, alike. Andy Center says that's piled onto another trend he's seen in vacation rentals: shorter stays. He chalks that up to cheaper airfares.

Center: People tend to take their weeklong or longer vacations to more distant places, and they focus more: OK, I've got a quickie weekend, I can go to one of the local mountain resorts.

Local marketing expert Leslie McLellan met me a lakeside breakfast spot. She says not only did visitors used to stay longer; they'd plan further ahead.

Leslie McLellan: People booked, like, months in advance. The lodging people would get like minimum three-night stays. I mean people talk about the good old days, and that's what they're talking about.

Today it's hard to know who's coming "up the hill" -- as the locals say -- or when. High season runs from about July 4th to mid-August, instead of Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Leslie McLellan used to place magazine and newspaper ads for the Chamber of Commerce, to promote the lake. When that money ran dry, she used free social media tools. Now, she's laid off.

McLellan: There's no marketing, this year.

That may not bode well for the empty retail spaces in Lake Arrowhead Village. But it doesn't mean the lake is empty. Boys still fish from canoes. Girls still perch on diving boards. Parents still wait with towels to dry them off. Jared and Kelly Mueller watch their two sons feed the ducks.

Jared Mueller: I think for a family to get to know each other, you need to have things quiet. So we like come up to a place where my cell phone doesn't work, and the boys can run around, make bows and arrow, and get dirty.

They're camping, a few miles away from the lake. When they pack up, they'll drive back to their home -- near Disneyland.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

Follow Eve Troeh at @evetroeh