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Florida towns send spring break crowd abroad

Spring break — that brain cell-bashing, dance floor-mashing, bikini-flashing spree of college hedonism — is being squeezed from its old U.S. haunts despite a robust revenue stream worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Image: Fort Lauderdale
Once a hotbed of spring break activity, Fort Lauderdale has transformed itself into a family-friendly beach town.Wilfredo Lee / AP file
/ Source: contributor

The party never dies, it’s just getting harder to find.

Spring break — that brain cell-bashing, dance floor-mashing, bikini-flashing spree of college hedonism — is being squeezed from its old U.S. haunts despite a robust revenue stream worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Scores of sun-seeking students and their bucks are bound this month for Mexico or the Caribbean where the drinking age is lower, the laws looser and the welcomes warmer. Meanwhile, traditional American hotbeds like Daytona Beach, Panama City Beach and South Padre Island are expecting smaller college crowds compared to their peak party years as the areas seek to lure more families.

No U.S. community has worked harder than Fort Lauderdale to shun spring breakers. The South Florida city — where the annual beach exodus was born in 1935, boosted by the 1960 film “Where the Boys Are” and bumped to new heights by MTV — suddenly choked off the chugathon 22 years ago. Now, Fort Lauderdale even teaches other resort towns how to get out of that boozy money pool.

“We’ve had a countywide facelift and a countywide lobotomy,” said Nicki Grossman, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We congratulate ourselves. At the time, though, there was this collective holding of breath before we really knew we were on the path to graduating from spring break.”

The crackdown began in 1985 after 380,000 students swarmed into Fort Lauderdale, crammed into $19-a-night motels, gorged themselves on free Budweiser and shimmied in wet T-shirts. MTV’s cameras captured — and fueled — much of the mayhem. Never mind that the kids also spent $110 million. City fathers decided it had to end: The security costs, traffic and noise caused a massive community hangover.

“It was too big, too raunchy and too hard to recover from,” Grossman said. “When the kids left that year, nobody wanted to step into those rooms.”

From beer bongs to group sales
While the mayor went on national TV the following spring to tell college students to stay away, the city invested in property upgrades and passed laws to curb the party. They banned open alcohol containers, sleeping in cars and parking overnight at the beach. A1A, the oceanfront road, was rerouted to halt cruising. They spent tens of millions of dollars on a new convention center, beach improvements and an airport expansion as the tourism message shifted from beer bongs to group sales. The college kids slowly got priced out. And the town once called “Fort Liquordale” began attracting more upscale tourists. Resort hotels replaced the mom-and-pop motels. By 1989, the spring break college crowd had shrunk to 20,000.

“We had spent 40 years with that as the linchpin of our marketplace. That’s one of the reasons we worried when we shut it off,” Grossman said. “It’s amazing how long it took us.”

Of course, with a history that colorful, you can’t completely escape the past. This spring, Fort Lauderdale officials expect the arrival of 14,000 students who, Grossman said, have become “just part of the mix.” Now, the area sees more than 1 million families and couples in March and April, and those spring visitors spend about $1 billion. Case in point: The St. Regis Resort, with rooms running $600 a night, stands on the same ground that once held the Candy Store Lounge — the bar that invented the wet T-shirt contest.

“They have a fabulous, luxurious spa at the St. Regis," Grossman said. “But no wet T-shirts.”

Fort Lauderdale’s spring-break shakeout did leave some carnage, however. Some long-time retailers who survived are not thrilled with the changes.

“Right now, (during spring break) you can get any hotel room you want on Fort Lauderdale beach. It shouldn’t be that way,” said one retailer who asked not to be quoted by name. “The senior citizens prefer it. But young people think it’s a dying area.”

Retailers head for the exits
In the years since Fort Lauderdale blocked college spring break, several retail chains have pulled out or died, including the Hard Rock Cafe, Fuddruckers, Houston’s and Carnegie Deli. At the Elbo Room, one of the remaining beach hangouts from the '80s, the beer-sipping clientele is older, tamer and, of course, smaller, said co-owner Mike Penrod. While his place survived, the seven local bars once owned by Penrod’s father all have closed.

“There are growing pains when you change things. You can’t make everybody happy,” Penrod said. “But it’s more of a nice resort town for families. Before, college kids were ruining the town. It’s good they got rid of them.”

Even better, Grossman said, the city’s cleaner image helped breed a year-round tourist trade. In calendar 1985, 3.3 million visitors came to Fort Lauderdale and spent $2.2 billion. In 2001, 7.8 million visitors spent $4.8 billion. Last year, 10.7 million visitors dropped $8.8 billion, according to the visitors bureau. Not surprisingly, those numbers grabbed the attention of tourism officials in spring-break hotspots like Daytona Beach, Panama City Beach, Virginia Beach and South Padre Island. Grossman fielded the same question from each of those cities: How did you do it?

“I’ve spent half of my spring time over the past 10 years giving a 101 course to destinations that wanted to undo spring break,” Grossman said.

By the late '80s, much of the spring break throng had moved to Daytona Beach. MTV showed up, too. In 1993, 300,000 college partiers came. In 2004, Daytona Beach unveiled a new label for the event, “Spring Family Beach Break,” and a new motto: “It’s All About Respect.” But the city, which expects 40,000 students this spring, didn’t mimic Fort Lauderdale’s hard-line stance.

“We would never say no to a group of students,” said Lori Campbell Baker, director of communications for the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau. “They’re the next generation of traveler.”

“I’m always mystified why some destinations want to villainize college students,” added Scott Edwards, general manager of the Daytona Beach Welcome Center, which books rooms for 26 hotels. “Twenty five years ago, buses would roll in with 40 kids and two kegs. Today, most of these kids have their own cars and credit cards. They’re materialistic. It’s a different breed of cat.”

Where MTV goes, so goes the party
Of course, where MTV goes, the party follows. This year, that is Panama City Beach on the Florida Panhandle where tourism officials are walking a careful line between welcoming the kids and appeasing residents who prefer peace.

Once a proud part of the “Redneck Riviera,” Panama City Beach has been transformed by a recent spate of development that replaced honky-tonks with high-rise condos. Now, only about 20 percent of the beach properties are spring-break friendly. At the same time, the city’s tourism officials slashed their spring-break marketing budget this year from $300,000 to $150,000.

How was that $150,000 spent? To secure a deal with MTV to broadcast this month from Panama City Beach, said Andy Phillips, chairman of the Bay County Tourist Development Council. About 350,000 students are expected to descend and spend $100 million.

“It’s a lot of business,” Phillips said. “If you’re just going to shut the door on spring break, a lot of businesses would be very upset. A lot wouldn’t survive. There’s an ongoing battle between the pro-spring break people and anti-spring break people. ... But unless you’ve got a market segment that can immediately replace (college) spring break, it’s a big risk.”

Next year, however, that same city marketing budget will likely drop to zero, Phillips acknowledged.

While Panama City Beach opted to stay in the game, much of the spring-break industry continues to slip over the border. More than 100,000 American students now head to resorts in Mexico for their annual March revelry, according to the State Department.

“You can’t get into a lot of these places because of the college kids,” said Carrie Erdman, manager of Fort Lauderdale Travel.

Close to 80 percent of the spring breakers who booked their 2008 trips through Erdman’s agency are going abroad, and most are flocking to Mexico's Puerto Vallarta and Acapulco, she said.

But in the city that first spurned the students, tourism officials watch that revenue stream flow south and say they are happy not to be tapping it.

“As long as there is a college year, there will be spring break and there will be kids who want to spring break their brains out,” Grossman said. “Spring break was once a gentler animal. Now it’s just an animal.”