NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Airlines can't rob you for peak airfare and Hollywood studios can't charge you double for 3-D versions of bad movies if you decide to play with toys in your own backyard instead.A TripAdvisor ( EXPE) survey found that 86% of Americans plan to travel this summer, and vacation site HomeAway ( AWAY) says 81% of its respondents are going on vacation. Throw in the American Express ( AXP) Spending and Saving Tracker survey revealing only 59% of respondents plan to hit the road or skies before Labor Day, and a very important question emerges: What are the other 14% to 41% of Americans doing with their summer? Increasingly, they're staying home. The $3.58 average price of a gallon of gas in the U.S. is an improvement over the $4 per gallon Americans were paying in May but still 80% more than what they paid at the same time last year. Those gas prices and $10 to $30 peak travel surcharges that FareCompare says are a staple of summer flights led 15% of HomeAway respondents and 5% of TripAdvisor travelers to admit they're dropping summer vacation plans this year because of increased costs. Their money is staying home as well. Overall retail sales were down from spring heading into Memorial Day, according to the Census Bureau, but one category kept climbing as the others collapsed: building material, garden equipment and supplies, which grew 1.2% from April and 7% from May 2010. That's a lot of outdoor home improvement and, coupled with a 2.1% month-to-month and 8.4% year-over-year growth for miscellaneous retailers, a lot more toys for the stay-at-home crowd. If summer vacationers are taking "staycations" in their own backyards, those outdoor spaces may as well be places worth visiting. TheStreet did some midsummer shopping and found 10 must-have items for people whose destination is right outside their back door:
The average price of a movie ticket in the U.S. jumped from $5.39 in 2000 to $7.89, according to the National Association of Theater Owners. That inflation is matched only by the rise in the number of sequels Hollywood is foisting on the American public this year. BoxOfficeMojo counted 27 sequels on the slate this year, including Cars 2, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II. Those movies accounted for 20% of the nationwide releases on the schedule at the beginning of this year, was almost 50% more than the number of sequels released last year and beats the record 24 sequels released in 2003. Remind consumers again why they shouldn't just stay home instead. That whole "you can never replicate the theater experience" argument doesn't hold water, either. Even the local Walgreens ( WAL) and CVS ( CVS) sell inexpensive projectors consumers can hook up to a DVD player, computer or, in some cases, a smartphone to play movies from their DVD collection, iTunes ( AAPL) or Amazon ( AMZN) stockpiles or through Netflix ( NFLX), Hulu and other streaming services. Epson's made it easy, but a little costly, to get started by packaging a projector, DVD player and speakers into its portable MovieMate line, which starts with a base low-resolution model and bumps up to a 720p high-definition version with HDMI input for Blu-ray or streaming. The other heavy hitter in the projector world, Optoma, also starts out small with a low-resolution model and bumps up to a portable projector that's compatible with DVD players, game consoles, VGA-output laptops and cable and satellite connections and can be had for $200. The features and costs can get out of hand quickly, however, as Epson, Optoma and competitors such as Vivitek and ViewSonic offer 1080p HD projectors with prices that inflate to more than $1,000 as component inputs increase and the lumen count that measures projectors' brightness rises.
If you didn't spend a whole lot on your projector, a sheet, wide window shade or handy blank wall may do the trick. If you made a serious investment in your cinematic experience, you're going to want a screen. Netherlands-based Projecta usually reserves its screens for boardrooms and PowerPoint presentations, but it supplies Best Buy ( BBY) with pull-down, tripod-based portable screens as well as fixed, electronic drop-down versions. Prices range from $120 for an 84-inch plain white, pull-down screen to $650 for a 10-foot electric drop-down model. Open Air Cinema, meanwhile, staked its claim on Amazon by boosting the size of the screens it sells to almost drive-in proportions. Its budget model is a 9-by-5-foot inflatable that costs $600 and needs to be held down by tent-style tether cables. For the less-modest moviegoer, the company's high-end $3,250 CineBox home theater package includes a 3,000-lumen Sanyo LCD projector, a portable speaker system with tripods and sound board and a 16-by-9-foot screen seemingly designed to tower over a neighbor's fence. The Hammacher-Schlemmer catalog's $1,000 outdoor inflatable theater seems almost restrained by comparison. The MGM ( MGM)-endorsed 72-inch screen inflates with an electric pump, comes with a 900-lumen standard-definition projector with HDMI and VGA inputs and two water-resistant speakers.
That Michael Bay bass drop from the Transformers movies doesn't just make itself. Tech and home theater geeks can argue the merits of a proper speaker setup forever, but none of those arguments are going to make those speakers any prettier. Boston Acoustics decided that the best solution for movie buffs who wanted to keep the bass tube behind the scenes and the other speakers out of sight was to basically hide the speakers in landscape-friendly package. The company's Voyager outdoor rock speakers vary from two-way speakers in small stones of less than a square foot ($250) or 18-inch standalone single-speaker stereo models ($500). They may not be as big and bad as some of their home theater brethren, but they come in New England granite, sandstone or river rock patterns that blend into the background.
If you're skipping the movies, you may as well skip dinner reservations, too. It's OK to haul out the charcoal and lighter fluid and hand down the grilling traditions of years past, but if you're upping the amount of outdoor cooking you're doing this year, there are a couple of ways to step up your game as well. That means entering a world of controlled-sear infrared burners, gas/wood hybrids and portable grills priced like used Hyundais. Lynx Grills aren't cheap and don't claim to be. The Commerce, Calif.-based company's 27-inch base model free-standing grill starts at more than $3,800 for 50,000 BTU burners, LED lights on the temperature controls, a halogen light on the grill surface and ceramic briquettes to help distribute heat. Add a rotisserie feature and you're up to $4,500. Add the infrared burner -- it allows cooks to sear steaks, then drop the heat to grill side dishes -- and you're up to $4,800. Increase that grill width to 36 inches and the price jumps to $6,700. Once you're committed to a commercial kitchen-sized 54-inch model for nearly $10,000, you're not only obliged to find a better butcher, but encouraged to see if they'll take a Chevy Aveo in trade. Kalamazoo Outdoor Gourmet takes it a step further by offering hybrid grills that allow ambitious chefs to cook with charcoal, wood and gas all on the same surface using interchangeable grilling drawers. The 450HT no-frills model with a 24-inch, 50,000 BTU cooking surface, 11,000 BTU infrared rotisserie and stainless steel grill grate starts at $9,000. That's before adding perks such as a smoker box, sauce rack, garbage can or a custom grill grate with your logo on it. A side burner alone bumps the price up to $10,200 while doubling the size of the whole package, and adding a side burner puts the price into midsized-car territory at $16,000. If that's what high-end grill companies do when they're focusing on their core product, imagine what would happen if they had fun with something completely frivolous ...
Imagine no more. The funniest part about this is that Kalamazoo Gourmet already had a perfectly functional outdoor pizza oven in its stable. The Outdoor Artisan Pizza Oven had a composite stone cooking surface, a domed exterior for reflecting heat, a 200- to 800-degree cooking range and a wood box for giving pizza that smoky wood-oven flavor. What it didn't have was a badass wall of hellfire to scare the life out of the neighbors. The $6,500 Artisan Fire Pizza Oven has nearly everything its predecessor had and adds exposed flame and dual burners: one from below to cook the crust and one up top to brown the toppings. The minimum temperature's been ratcheted up to 350 degrees to keep it running extra hot and to help cut finishing times down to three minutes in some cases. The cooking surface is still stone, but the roof is now lined with stone as well just to give pepperoni the tan it's always longed for. These changes seem really superficial at first but, admittedly, it looks really cool as a result. It's a significant investment, but it'll permanently knock the local pizza place off speed dial.
If you're not ordering out for pizza anymore, why waste the cab fare on a night out at the bar? The kegerator is the college student's dream that's an easily attainable reality for the stay-at-home vacationer. Not surprisingly, Lynx and Kalamazoo have outdoor kegerators and taps for the yard-bound beer lover. Less surprisingly, there are less-expensive options out there for those who sank $5,000 to $15,000 on their grills. Chinese appliance maker Haier built a global empire on small refrigerators and kegerators, and its stainless steel BrewMaster Kegerator goes for $830 at the nearest Lowe's. Haier also makes a dual-tap model that holds less beer and sells for $100 less as well. The king of the outdoor kegerators, however, is Bronx, N.Y.-based Summit Appliance. Its outdoor single- and dual-tap models come in exactly one size and one color -- stainless steel -- but work with commercial-grade efficiency and can be found online or at large independent appliance stores for $700 to $1,200.
Not everybody's a beer drinker, which is why all of the companies that make outdoor kegerators make outdoor wine refrigerators as well. Summit's choices are somewhat limited here as well, but their high-end wine fridge comes with the sweet perk of wooden shelves for a bit of wine cellar credibility. Downmarket Haier puts on similar airs with its built-in units, but its free-standing wine fridges are as laid-back as a four-bottle countertop model you can keep in the outdoor kitchen or an 18-bottle, dual temperature fridge for the garage. If you want a wine fridge certain to survive a few summers outside, Kalamazoo Gourmet offers 20- and 40-bottle stainless steel, vinyl-coated models with UV-protected glass doors for $3,000 and $3,500, respectively. Paying that much for a wine fridge isn't great, but having an inferior fridge ruin at least that much in good wine will be infinitely worse.
Go ahead, go to Target ( TGT), Wal-Mart ( WMT), Amazon or Home Depot ( HD) and get that outdoor bar that looks like the fake tiki hut. It's a lot less expensive than a weekend in Waikiki downing mai tais at Duke's.
There was a time when a steel fire pit or a chimney in the backyard would have been considered quaint. Now that every Home Depot, Lowe's ( LOW), Wal-Mart, Target, Kohls ( KSS) and even J.C. Penney ( JCP) are selling the slate or steel cauldrons or clay chimneys, "fire features" are just about as unique as patio umbrellas or picnic tables. This is how you get companies such as Necessories that treat fire pits and other outdoor furniture like grown-up prehistoric Lego sets. Necessories sells its fire pits in sets of pre-cut stone blocks that, once assembled, look like Southwest or South American makeshift ovens perfect for roasting asado. Just to send that point home, Necessories has an optional swivel cooking grate for homeowners looking to play gaucho for a day. The fire pits are joined by other accents including light pillars, seating walls, bistro tables, dining tables, bars and even outdoor kitchens. Chimneys, however, just seem like such a waste when Necessories is perfectly willing to let homeowners build compact fireplaces or $7,000 8-feet-tall, 12-feet-wide grand fireplaces in the backyard.
It's easily one of the most expensive options for outdoor living, costs quite a bit to maintain and doesn't do a thing to improve your home's resale value. Still, the lure of the hot tub is strong for those looking for a little something extra in their outdoor space, but something a little shy of a pool. Last we checked, Jacuzzi was still in business and still the genericized trademark for the industry. Its jet configurations have changed, there's more LED lighting and more funky patterns for that lighting and a lot more options for MP3-ready stereos, iPod docks and wireless remotes in each tub, but it's still a five-figure investment. With that much on the line, buyers may as well go cannonballing into the hot tub world. Pomona, Calif.-based Cal Spas not only stocks hot tubs and saunas but builds friendly surroundings for them so owners aren't left with just a tub on a deck. It's Spa Surrounds series provides the most subtle options, encircling tubs in bars, stools, steps and plants. For city dwellers short on space and privacy, the Metro Surround series is a bit more temporary, but a lot more private -- placing screens between yourself and unwanted onlookers. Those with space to spare, however, can turn their tub into private rooms or shaded villas if the neighbors get just a bit too nosy while you're "on vacation." -- Written by Jason Notte in Boston. >To contact the writer of this article, click here: Jason Notte. >To follow the writer on Twitter, go to http://twitter.com/notteham. >To submit a news tip, send an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.http://www.calspas.com/default.asp?contentID=670