Arts & Culture

New Documentary Captures the Magic of a Former Chincoteague Campground

Maryland native filmmaker Amy Nicholson’s ‘Happy Campers’ follows residents as they mourn their “shabby Shangri-La” on the eve of its demolition to make way for a resort.
—Photography by Amy Nicholson

Growing up in Perry Hall in the 1960s, Amy Nicholson spent her summers where most local kids did—downy ocean. Beachcombing at Assateague. Waitressing at a doughnut shop in Ocean City. Crossing the wooden bridge to Chincoteague Island in Virginia, in search of wild ponies.

So, when the filmmaker, now based in New York, and her musician husband, Tim, a fellow Marylander, went looking for a future retirement spot, they naturally gravitated to the Eastern Shore.

There, in 2017, they fell in love with Inlet View Campground on Chincoteague, a community of mostly blue-collar residents who remade their rusty trailers into tidy vacation homes with million-dollar waterfront views. Then that became their home-away-from-home, too. And it is also now the subject of Nicholson’s third full-length documentary, Happy Campers, which chronicles the campground’s poignant final season as residents mourn their “shabby Shangri-La” on the eve of its demolition to make way for a resort.

“Family campgrounds are an essential part of Eastern Shore culture, and they are disappearing fast,” says Nicholson, 60, whose 2012 film, Zipper, documented a Coney Island community’s struggle to save its beloved seaside amusement park.

Decades old, Inlet View was decidedly unfussy. Residents proudly dubbed it the “Armpit of America.” TripAdvisor rated it sixth among Chincoteague’s six campgrounds and one reviewer griped, “Even the Griswolds wouldn’t stay here.” But to longtime residents—and the open-minded—it was an outpost of boozy bonhomie, stunning sunsets, and humble diversions, where everybody knew your name, but no one cared who you were.

“There was a pervasive philosophy that if you were able to live cheek by jowl with your neighbors, you were one of them,” Nicholson says.

It wasn’t until campers learned of their pending eviction that Nicholson decided to make the film. Using a handheld camera, she filmed without a crew for the first time, tenderly capturing the last rites of camper culture: beers and bonfires, community potlucks, the antics of campground pranksters, with one resident featured in the image above.

“The films find me, not the other way around,” says Nicholson of her work. “I come across a place or a community or a subject that draws me in and I get obsessed with what makes this thing something that the world needs to appreciate.” Her award-winning 2005 Muskrat Lovely explored the duality of an Eastern Shore beauty pageant and muskrat-skinning competition.

An admirer of John Waters, Nicholson’s own Baltimore roots run deep; her grandfather worked for Bethlehem Steel and her production company, Myrtle & Olive, honors her great aunts, who shared a house in the city for decades. Happy Campers premiered at the prestigious DOC NYC in November, where it won a Special Jury Prize. Following a screening at the Ocean City Film Festival, it was submitted for the Maryland Film Festival at the Parkway Theatre in May.

Ultimately, fancy RVs and glamping displaced Inlet View.

“I tend to fall in love with things that are undervalued, experiences or communities that have magic and if you try to fix it, you break it,” says Nicholson. “I don’t begrudge the developers, but there was magic there and it was broken. It’s not there anymore.”