It just passed, for those of us who work in the hotel industry anywhere south of latitude 31 degrees north – that time of year when hordes of college students descend on the beaches of Mexico, Florida, Texas and, to a lesser extent, Cayman.
Spring Break has its own distinctive sound, much like the hum of a beach-bar blender mixing sunscreen, margaritas, wet T-shirts and the “ka-ching” of a cash register.
No question, in the free-loving ‘70s and ‘80s, a time when sunscreen was unheard of, Fort Lauderdale was the top springtime host to the fun- and sun-loving future doctors and lawyers of America. I recall playing music at a very seedy bar along Lauderdale’s stretch of coast in March of 1982; it was a nasty scene. Loudmouthed hooligans were dancing, stumbling and vomiting in every corner. The glassy-eyed delinquents came in the bikini-clad female category, as well as the young buck groupings. Most were so inebriated for the long weekend that their modesty had been left in classrooms up north.
By the mid-80s, business was booming and nearly 400,000 students were descending on “Fort Liquor-Dale,” as it was fondly called at the time. Through the regurgitation, sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, there was that silver lining called money … lots of money; capital that students were contributing to south Florida’s economy.
Right around the same time, Daytona Beach got in on the action. They wanted some of the dividends being shared 204 miles south in Lauderdale. To lure the merrymakers to their beachside town, they went so far as to offer free cigarettes to the teens and bus rides from college to the beach and back again.
To further entice the crowds, Daytona booked some of the big musical names at the time, such as MC Hammer, Starship and the Red Hot Chili Peppers – bands which were often sponsored by popular MTV. The timing could not have been better for Daytona because Lauderdale’s full-time residents had had enough of the annual frenzy. The Broward County sheriff and police started enforcing some strict party rules, which Daytona later duplicated:
- No possessing or displaying phony identification
- No open containers of alcohol in a public place
- No causing a drunken disturbance
- No fighting
- No public indecency
- No bringing tents, tables or similar structures onto the beach
But perhaps the biggest rule of all was keeping booze off the beach.
These were too many restrictions for the most intoxicated pranksters, so the frolic moved to Panama City Beach, a small town attached to 27 miles of breathtaking powdery white sand on west Florida’s Panhandle. The 2010 population of around 12,000 permanent residents swelled to over 250,000 during Spring Break.
Soon the town became known as one of the most notoriously raucous Spring Break destinations in the world. Then, in 2015, the chaos turned into a nightmare when an unforgettable incident involving a probably drugged coed became world news.
The city council quickly changed Panama City Beach’s Spring Break forever by joining the ranks of Fort Lauderdale and Daytona and banning consumption of alcohol on the beach during the month of March. The regulations considerably reduced the violence and mayhem of the annual event, but it drove away many, who started looking for destinations elsewhere, taking their money with them.
Bars, restaurants, gift shops and hotels were not happy and threatened legal action against the city commissioners. Statistics show that Spring Breakers, along with their dollars and daddy’s credit card, are worth fighting for. The roughly 16 million students now in the U.S. spend a total of $208 billion each year, according to data from Harris Interactive, a market-research company, and 22 percent of that spending is on discretionary items, like travel.
Fort Lauderdale, Daytona and Panama City still manage to draw their share of the annual Spring Break proceeds, though not to the level of the heydays of yesteryear. Many students (those that can afford it) are now traveling the extra miles to Jamaica, Mexico and the Bahamas, where drinking rules are in place, yet often ignored. Cayman, with its reputation as being one of the more pricey destinations gets its share of the young visitors during March and early April. Many, however, seem to be chaperoned by parents who own condos or timeshares on the island.
Chaperoned Spring Breakers? Maybe that is a good thing for Cayman.