12 Great Summer Vacation Movies
Lists: Eva Holland and Eli Ellison missed out on some prime tanning time to dig up the finest summer travel flicks
07.10.09 | 10:31 AM ET
A giant shark is biting people in half, the natives in Ghana are learning to “hang 10” and mean old Dr. Houseman has put Baby in a corner again. We’re talking, of course, about summer vacation movies, a genre beloved by generations of latchkey kids and armchair travelers alike.
We set the air conditioning on high, fired up the Jiffy Pop, poured ourselves several rum-cocos and watched dozens of summer vacation flicks in search of the crème de la crème.
Our only rule: The story must be set in summertime and involve a vacation or trip of some sort. Of course, we don’t like rules, and snuck in a couple of titles that are set in summery locales or capture the summer vacation spirit. Your protests are futile.
Here, in reverse chronological order, are 12 great summer vacation movies:
When James Brennan’s post-college European trip is hijacked by his parents’ financial troubles, he’s forced to head home to Pittsburgh and take a job at the local amusement park, a ratty vintage spot that—as we’ve noted before—most of us can relate to from our own youths. Admittedly, James doesn’t make it to Europe—so why is this a summer vacation movie? Because its obsessively rendered recreation of lazy theme park days screams “summer holidays” just as powerfully, if not more so, than many of the movies on this list.
Wet Hot American Summer (2001)
A hilariously bizarre spoof of late 70s/early 80s summer camp flicks, “Wet Hot” is “Meatballs” meets “Little Darlings” on acid. The camp counselors—from superstuds to uber-sluts—are all out to get laid on the last day of summer camp. The head chef, a whacked-out Vietnam vet, humps refrigerators and talks to a can of vegetables, which of course talks back. Camp director Beth (Janeane Garofalo) falls for astrophysics professor Henry (David Hyde Pierce), who must save Camp Firewood from a renegade chunk of NASA’s SkyLab that’s hurtling toward the rec hall. Sound ridiculous? You have no idea.
The Great Outdoors (1988)
John Candy played no shortage of hapless, pathetic and ultimately endearing characters over the years—see, for instance, one of our favorite travel race movies, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”—but Chet Ripley, the long-suffering dad in “The Great Outdoors,” remains one of our best-loved. All Chet wants is a lakeside getaway with his family, but when fat-cat brother-in-law Roman (Dan Ackroyd) crashes the party, things go awry. Throw in a grizzly bear, a pair of creepy, Kubrick-esque twin girls and a teenage romance played out as more than an afterthought, and you have a classic feel-good family comedy.
Dirty Dancing (1987)
Peace Corps-bound straight-arrow Frances “Baby” Houseman heads to a Catskills resort with her family, where she meets Johnny, the dance teacher/womanizer from the wrong side of the tracks. Over the course of several saucy dance numbers, Baby figures out how to loosen up and be true to herself, while Johnny discovers that he really is worth something, after all—and, of course, stern father Dr. Houseman learns that nobody puts Baby in a corner.
Trite and sentimental? You could say that. But we prefer words like “classic” and “unforgettable.”
Stand by Me (1986)
It’s the last days of summer when Gordie, Chris, Teddy and Vern learn the location of a missing boy’s body and set off hiking in search of it. The subsequent, carefully scripted story—based on Stephen King’s “The Body”—mixes boyhood adventure, poignancy and humor with some very adult lessons about life and death. The campfire scene is up there with the all-time greats.
We know the best lines by heart. We still laugh at Cousin Eddie’s country bumpkin clan, the insufferable Aunt Edna and Walley World security-guard-taken-hostage Lasky (John Candy). We replay the classic Clark Griswold “You’re all BLEEPED in the head” meltdown scene until we’re whistling “Zippity Do-Dah” out of our you-know-whats. And we’re still certain Christie Brinkley has never taken an acting lesson in her life. The Griswold family-vacation-from-hell spawned three sequels and several imitations. But so far, none have matched the original trip down “Holiday Road.”
Nothing says summer camp like obnoxious loudspeaker wake-up calls, potato sack races and a crop of eager co-ed counselors more concerned with each other than their young charges. “Meatballs” has all of that, and more—most crucially, it has a young Bill Murray still in his off-the-wall “Saturday Night Live” prime. As head counselor, Murray punks the camp director, bonds with the lonely kid, gets the girl and makes us wish we were back at camp again.
The summer resort town of Amity Island is gearing up for the big Fourth of July weekend, when tourists will descend on the beach, and depart without their limbs. Local police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), marine biologist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and salty old sailor Quint (Robert Shaw) spend their summer hunting the Great White Shark that’s been snacking on swimmers. Never mind the fake-looking mechanical fish. Steven Spielberg’s man vs. beast thriller is so tense, the shark’s ominous two-note theme (duh-dum ... duh-dum) and dorsal-fin alone are enough to scare you right out of your Speedo.
Ed, Lewis, Bobby and Drew are suburbanites who set out to paddle the (fictional) Cahulawassee River before it’s dammed and the area flooded. But between the malevolent, toothless hillbillies that abound on the river’s banks and the sinister rapids between them, things don’t go as planned.
We’re not sure what Georgia’s tourism bureau would have to say about the 1973 Best Picture nominee, but “Deliverance” is a vacation movie nonetheless—albeit one that wouldn’t be entirely out of place on our travel horror movie list.
Summer of 42 (1971)
Maybe it’s the long lazy days. Or perhaps it’s the heat. Who knows? But there’s something about summer that shifts the male teen libido into overdrive. Hermie, vacationing on Nantucket Island, crushes on an older woman (Jennifer O’Neil) whose husband is off fighting in World War II. What we have here is a perfect specimen of 1970s sentimental cheese, spiced with a dash of nostalgic comedy. As a pimply teen, whether your infatuation was an older woman or man, the movie’s tag line rings true: “In everyone’s life, there is a summer of 42.”
The Endless Summer (1966)
The best summer vacation flick ever made (that’s right, we said it) is a surfing documentary. From the “dirty old Wedge” at Newport Beach, California, to the endless tubes of Cape St. Francis, South Africa, filmmaker/narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers as they chase the summer season, and its tasty waves, around the globe. The adventurous spirit of Endless Summer is highly contagious. If you’ve never seen it, shame on you. Immediately move it to number one in your Netflix queue.
Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation (1962)
Decades before John Candy’s lobster-red “Summer Rental” sunburn, Roger Hobbs (Jimmy Stewart) originated the dilapidated rental-beach-house-of-horrors shtick alongside wife Peggy (Maureen O’Hara) and the beatnik-bearded Joe (Fabian). All Hobbs wants to do on his family summer vacation is lounge by the seaside and read “War and Peace” in peace. His dysfunctional brood has other ideas. During a month of slapstick mishaps and father-son, father-daughter bonding, Stewart reminds us why he’s still the best everyman to ever hit Hollywood.