Remember the movie "Where the Boys Are"? Fun-and-sun-loving college kids headed to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break, circa 1960. Florida offered the three most important things in a college student's life: cheap fun, cheap beer and a large supply of the opposite sex. And 20 years later, ust look what Connie Francis hath wrought.
About 1.5 million college students hit Florida for Spring Break each year. Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach get about 400,000 each, while Fort Myers, Key West and the panhandle towns usually share the rest -- though this season Jacksonville hopes to lure at least 40,000 Ivy Leaguers with special invitations and discounts.
Now, if each student stays for seven days and spends $30 a day, it's clear that these days Spring Break is "where the bucks are." In fact, the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce estimates the collegiate rite is worth nearly $120 million to its community; for Daytona, the figure is about $80 million. And that's not counting the money spent by big corporations on advertising campaigns.
Advertising? On the beach? Yessir. With all those bright, upwardly-mobile students around (and they're all in a good mood), it didn't take long for the big corporations to discover Spring Break, too. A little free beer here, some free cigarettes there, a Camel beach towel, a Budweiser frisbee, a Miller T-shirt -- and you might have made a customer for life. The beer, cigarette and auto industries spend millions of dollars promoting their wares to the students in Daytona and Lauderdale. They throw parties, sponsor concerts and generally turn the beach into one long commercial.
And don't forget the local nightclubs and bars, which pour oceans of beer and drain thousands of wallets each spring. All types of music are available, and all kinds of contests, from beer chugging to wet underwear. Students gladly pay a $5 cover charge for the privilege of buying a can of beer for $3, having forgettable music blasted at them and getting jostled by the rocking, sweaty crowd.
So what's the appeal? It's endlessly warm. There are endless freebies to be had. And the crowds are endlessly friendly. Ah, youth.
Despite a declining college-age population, tourism officials see nothing but growth ahead for the Spring Break craze.
"It's where the action is -- everybody knows that," says Tommy Mercer, director of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce. "There's just such a mystique about it. The kids may be broke, but they'll save their pennies all year for their week in Fort Lauderdale."
They start arriving in late February, looking for sun, sand, surf, sex and suds, and they won't stop coming until Easter. In Lauderdale, the place to be is right on Highway A1A, "The Strip." Beginning at The Bottom, a cavernous bar that boasts the atmosphere of a rock concert, they work their way north: past the Elbow Room (historic and a little more sedate than the other clubs), Penrod's and the Candy Store, stopping at each spot to scope the action. During Spring Break, the police often close the right lane of traffic southbound on A1A to accommodate the crowd that overflows from the sidewalk.
Occasionally, students cross the street to hit the beach. "Oh, we have 20,000 or so students on the beach at one spot at any given time," Mercer says off-handedly. "We know they're going to take away our beach for eight weeks. But, hey, we also know that it's very healthy for our economy."
Fort Lauderdale did have a slight setback last year, when a local official was quoted as saying college students were no longer welcome in the town. Mercer says the quote was erroneous, and he's expecting a record crowd this year. Anyway, he asks, how would the town be able to stop the Spring Breakers? "We've never spent one dime on advertising. It just happens. They just come, year after year. It's a phenomenon."
Daytona Beach, Florida's other major Spring Break spot, does advertise, spending about $100,000 a year to attract students, according to Dwight Selby, the director of tourism development. Although it gets as many students as Lauderdale, Daytona promotes itself because it has always seemed to be the No. 2 choice for students (if your parents won't let you go to Fort Lauderdale, then see if they'll say okay to Daytona).
Daytona's bars are just as wild, though there is less exposed flesh in the contests. Daytona exhibits a more genteel debauchery, but the wolf whistles on the beach and the rock 'n' roll in the clubs are just as loud as anywhere in Florida.
"It's funny," notes Selby. "Most people want to get away for their vacations. But the college market is the one segment of tourism that wants to be in a crowd."
The residents of Daytona, which is a year-round tourist town, react a little better to the invading hordes than Lauderdale citizens. Daytona is the second biggest beach attraction in Florida, so most of the population works in the tourist industry. Fort Lauderdale, on the other hand, is primarily a residential and commercial community, and many locals see the students as one big, loud headache.
There's no real "strip" in Daytona, since the large hotels are spread along a five-mile stretch of A1A. But that just makes for great "cruisin' " -- convertibles preferred, of course -- up and down A1A. You can even cruise the beach in Daytona, since cars are allowed to drive on the sand.
A number of large Daytona nightclubs thrive on the Spring Break crowds -- among them The Other Place, 600 North, the Plantation -- but my favorite has always been The Hole, perhaps the best and certainly the most aptly named bar in town. It's a tiny basement lounge with a postage-stamp for a dance floor and a decor that's, well, a cross between a run-down corner bar and a sock hop. They play only oldies at The Hole, and the lack of a cover charge and the cheap beer makes the spot a real gem.
Another Daytona attraction is its easy access to some fine side trips. Disney World, the Kennedy Space Center and historic St. Augustine are all a two-hour drive from the beach, and many students take advantage of the bus packages that leave from their hotels.
While Daytona and Fort Lauderdale remain the undisputed primary havens for Spring Break, this year a third city has made a big splash into this lucrative pool. Jacksonville -- a major insurance, banking and transportation center in the northeast corner of the state -- has created an ingenious marketing ploy to lure students to its fine (and largely undiscovered) beaches.
"Spring Break by Invitation Only" is the creation of Terri Kiel, Jacksonville's director of tourism. Officially, you can go to Jacksonville for Spring Break this year only if you have an invitation (though obviously the city is open to any visitor with the cash), and you can get an invitation only if you go to an Ivy League school or Boston University.
"We're looking for quality, not quantity," Kiel explains. "We want to give these students a first-class vacation, and the only way to do that is to limit the crowds." Jacksonville invited about 200,000 students and hopes to host around 40,000. Students with an invitation receive discounted air fare, hotel rates and many other goodies.
The town, for example, is featuring free concerts with such stars as the Pointer Sisters, the Beach Boys and Toto, and there will be pool-side promotions and bar contests, just like in Daytona and Fort Lauderdale.
Though a crowd of 30,000 students is barely noticeable in the Spring Break capitals, Jacksonville has never had any Spring Break trade, so any students who accept the invitation will be welcomed warmly. Plus, of course, the city is betting on the future: If they come as college students, maybe they'll come back as adults.
"In the long term, we would like the student on Spring Break to be impressed by Jacksonville and our beaches, and someday come back and bring his or her family," Kiel says. "And we hope these students' parents will be thinking, 'What's so special about Jacksonville that you had to have an invitation?' -- and so they'll stop here on their next vacation."
Jacksonville's promotion is costing the city about $800,000, almost all of it contributed by local merchants eager to get a piece of the action. "We don't want to be another Daytona or Fort Lauderdale," Kiel says, "but we do want our share."
So, as they have for the last 30 years, the college students are again descending on Florida's beaches. They come six to a car and sleep 12 to a room. Most arrive with a few hundred dollars and exaggerated hopes of wild orgies, golden tans and indiscriminate hot times. Most will leave broke, sunburned and just a little disappointed, but that's part of life: We all eventually learn that few vacations are as good as the brochures.
But everyone who makes the trek to Florida will come back with at least three great stories: the time the cops almost saw them swimming nude in the ocean, that gorgeous group of football players from Tennessee, the all-night party in the room across the hall.
And there will always be new friends to meet: That's why Spring Break in Florida endures.