Spring break T-shirts, beer cozies, thong bikinis and Mardi Gras beads fill the shelves at the Paradise Found store on Panama City Beach. The shop is hiring extra staff and will maintain extended hours through March and April.
"Now we are just waiting," said store manager Dean Chon on a recent sunny afternoon as he folded T-shirts and tended the store's only customers, a retired couple from the Midwest.
Businesses up and down this strip of turquoise Gulf waters and white-sand beach are anxiously waiting, hoping and counting on thousands of teens and twenty-somethings to arrive en masse for Spring Break 2011.
A strong spring break will be an important sign the area has moved past last year's BP oil spill, which brought some tar balls and oil-covered debris from the blown-out rig to the once-pristine beach. A weak spring break will be another tough hit for the beach that had high hopes for 2010 with the opening of a new, international airport before the spill ruined summer tourism along a 200-mile swath of Florida's Panhandle.
"Spring break kicks off the whole summer travel season," said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors' Bureau. "This March is especially important because it is our first big tourism month since they finally killed the Deepwater Horizon," the well off Louisiana responsible for it all.
Rowe and his staff have made the rounds of colleges in the Midwest, distributing gift cards and promoting convenient flights to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport. They've visited the University of Michigan, Ohio State University and the University of Wisconsin, among other Midwestern campuses.
They next plan to visit schools in Georgia and Tennessee with later spring break dates.
In the meantime, the local economy has been buoyed by a steady flow of retirees seeking a break from the brutal northern winter. Panama City Beach saw an 8 percent increase in its tourism development tax collections in December over the same month in 2009, Rowe said.
The city is offering winter resident appreciation days to lure more of the northern snowbirds, while making the transition to spring with an aggressive online campaign to let college students know that the weather is good and the beach is clean. Businesses are offering deals on the Panama City Beach website for visitors with student IDs on everything from airboat tours and limousine rides to hot wings.
The message, Rowe said, is that the beach has moved past the oil spill and is ready for tourists.
"We never got any of the really big nasty stuff that they got in some of the areas, just some tar balls here and there and the amount of product they've been able to pick up has gone down dramatically in the last several months. The recovery is telling the world that Panama City Beach is here and that it is back to normal," Rowe said.
The marketing blitz appears to be paying off. Southwest Airlines said its flights into Panama City are full the weekends of March 11 and 19. Travel companies are generally reporting solid bookings.
Ticket sales on Expedia.com to Panama City Beach for March are up by 156 percent compared to last year, said Devon Nagle, an Expedia spokesman. "Bookings for April are up as well," he said, but still too early to give definitive results.
Expedia was offering package deals on flights and a five-night hotel stay in Panama City from locations including Chicago, Dallas and New York. Prices on Thursday ranged from $871 to $1,502 per person.
Panama City ranked 45th among Orbitz.com's spring break destinations in 2010 and fell slightly to 51st this year, said Emily Donohue, a spokeswoman for the website. The top 20 destinations booked on the travel website for spring break are Orlando, Las Vegas, Cancun, Phoenix, Fort Lauderdale, Fort Myers, Tampa, New York, Los Angeles and Denver.
Minnesota-based Travel Leaders, a leading travel company, said Panama City was not among its top destinations for 2011 in a recent survey. But the survey of the company's agents found that 62 percent said 2011 bookings to the Gulf Coast were the same or higher than 2010 — a positive sign for post-spill tourism, she said.
Mack Carter and his family have operated Shuckums Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill on Panama City Beach for more than 30 years. Last year was the toughest because of the oil spill.
"We hope the spring break crowd will come back. We have plenty of good, fresh Apalachicola oysters that were not affected by the oil," he said.
As his employees poured buckets of raw oysters into ice containers at the edge of a long bar, Carter said spring break 2011 is important for the local economy and for morale.
"We hope we will fill up this whole restaurant," he said. "I'm anticipating large crowds and lots of good, clean fun."
Daniel Estaffa's friends opened the Hook'd Bar and Grill that he manages on July 23 — in the middle of the oil spill. Estaffa has had mostly quiet days so far at the beach-front grill, which sits at the entrance of the beach's main fishing pier. He's heard stories about wild spring break crowds on Panama City Beach in the past, but he isn't sure what to expect this year.
"We are more family oriented but we are not opposed to spring break dollars," Estaffa said while pouring a beer for a retiree at the end of his bar. "All dollars are vital for us because most restaurants fold in their first year."
Hotel desk clerk Matthew Flesh is a spring break veteran. He works at the beach-front Ambassador Hotel.
Flesh rattled off various colleges and their spring break dates between taking reservation calls on a recent afternoon. So far, the season is looking good.
"It's been very busy," he said. "I'm getting calls from all over the East Coast and we are pretty much full."