The evolution of Spring Break

By Kelly Kaufhold

In the 1950's, Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon dreamily danced and sang on the California coast, partying with dozens of friends on the beach. That TV fantasy helped lead to the first big screen flick about spring break, "Where The Boys Are" in 1960.

The movie made history by targeting youth with its music and message -- a spring break phenomenon that continues today thanks to MTV. Today, it's fun in the sun with tens of thousands of spring breakers, beer, booze and concerts on beaches around the globe. In the '60s, it was a surfside party with a smaller group of pals, taking place on a select group of beaches.

1960's: Beach Blanket Bingo

The big place to see and be seen at that time was Fort Lauderdale. Each spring thousands of college students would take over the famous Route A1A, along with every beachfront hotel and eatery near the shore. This meant booming business on the beach, but South Florida is a long way from most of America's college campuses so students started looking for a sunny shore closer to home.

"I think it goes back to the late sixties," says Dan Stanton, general manager of Charlie's and Louie's clubs on South Padre Island. "I think it was mainly Texans, and even more localized than that. They would just come out over the Easter holiday."

Stanton and his two clubs have weathered most of those years when lone star students flocked there to find a nice stretch of sand where they could drink, dance and watch the sunrise - without having to pay a pretty penny for it. In the beginning it wasn't an organized annual trip, students just got together and cruised down. The party has matured, along with the crowd, but the locals say South Padre isn't much different.

One thing has changed a lot since the '60s - the price. A night in a South Padre Hotel cost about ten dollars then, according to American Hotel and Motel Association estimates. "Now it's about $150," says Ebbie Ahadi, General Manager of the Bahia Mar beachfront hotel. "That's only really (for) three weeks, and that's high season."

1970's: Cashing In On the Disco Era

Other people in the hospitality industry started cashing in on that capitalism by the dawn of disco in the '70s. Both Daytona Beach and Panama City Beach, Florida were just starting to expand their spring break horizons. Some of your folks cruised these coastlines then, although they wouldn't even recognize them now. "Panama City Beach has always had a spring break," recalls Steve Joyner, who runs Club La Vela there - a popular spot with the collegiate set.

"It started off as a southeast regional spring break," says Joyner, thinking back 25 years. "In fact they called it the AEA break, the Alabama Education Association break. There were not as many activities, not as much entertainment back then, but the crowds weren't as big." Joyner says new thinking and some lucky breaks dropped spring break right in Panama City's lap.

Some smart locals realized they had something no one else did: A 23-mile stretch of shore, which is actually the town of Panama City Beach, divided from Panama City by a natural waterway and a bridge. That offers the locals some breathing room from loud, rambunctious, partying students - something Fort Lauderdale doesn't have.

Once the potential was realized in PCB, business owners teamed up with politicians and police to roll out the red carpet for students -- right over the bridge. "If there's one secret in the success of Panama City Beach spring break, it is that," adds Joyner.

1980's: Run For the Border

About the same time organized spring break trips became commonplace, some overseas operators were looking over the water and making their moves, too. The seeds were planted on Mexico's shore in the mid '70s, seeds that really started to blossom about six years later.

  "Cancun was picked out 30 years ago to be the number one tourist destination in Mexico," says Joe Bush, National Sales Director for online travel agency Student Express. In 1974, the jewel on the Caribbean coast had just one hotel, but once the '80s hit and spring breakers showed more interest, travel packages turned into financially feasible deals. This spring, the resort city will host more than 100,000 students.

Ohio State Junior Chantal Feeser will be there. "A bunch of my sisters from my sorority are going to Mexico. There's 16 of us. I'm planning just to lay on the beach. I'm sure everyone else is planning to party a lot. I'm not much of a partier."

Partying is the big draw for spring breakers in Cancun - and it has been for decades -- since your parents' generation made the trip. "The clubs, the parties, the venues, it definitely blows everything away," adds Bush.

"(In) Cancun, there really is no drinking age. If you have a pulse you can drink," says Stanton, although Mexican law says you have to be 18 not 21 like in the states. "They aren't very good at policing the age," he adds, "and they aren't very good at policing the consumption."

1990's: I Want My MTV

Once the '90s hit and MTV stepped on to the spring break scene, destinations began changing and the parties started getting bigger. "With MTV starting to do it's broadcast in '92 or '93, then of course the nation found out about Panama City Beach and spring break," says Joyner.

That MTV momentum, which continued through the mid and late '90s in Panama City, came at the same time neighbors in Fort Lauderdale were getting tired of the crowds and carousing, so they launched a concerted effort to sweep the beach brawler types upstate - right into Panama City.

MTV picked up on that and revolutionized the party scene, not just in Florida but on every big spring break beach. Corporate sponsors now flock surfside with giveaways, and waterfront stages draw big name talent like rappers Run DMC and country crooner Robert Earl Keen, both on the program in South Padre this year.

It's a bigger, better bash for everybody. MTV draws bigger crowds; corporate sponsors get their logos all over TV; and students get to attend amazing parties and shows.

Spring Breakers More Responsible?

It's also a safer spring break, if that's possible. "You used to see kids just throw money down and say I want a shot, I want a shot, I want a shot," says Stanton, thinking back 20 years. Now he says that's changing. "We see each night one kid takes a turn being a designated driver or a chaperone," says Stanton. Panama City's Joyner agrees. "As long as they have activities and things to do, they are a pleasure as visitors."

"It's still spring break, they're here to do nutty stupid things, but you don't see near the property damage around the hotels, the condos, around the city," adds Stanton, with a postscript right out of the movies. "They still want to have fun, but they don't want to wake up a month from now and find out the rest of their life is messed up."