Each year, as the cold and gray of winter gives way to the bright new green of spring, human beings also experience an influx of energy: hopeful, youthful, and, at least partly, sexual. Psychologists explain this phenomenon with a variety of theories, but all agree that "spring fever" is normal and fairly universal. For the past six decades, American college students have celebrated this vernal "rising of the sap" with a unique ritual called "spring break," which involves travel to a sunny beachside resort to participate in drunken revelry and sexual debauchery. Though people of all ages, races, and classes may feel the urge to head somewhere sunny and warm as spring approaches, it is the fairly well-off, mostly white full-time students at four year colleges and universities that have created the famous phenomenon of spring break, celebrated in movies, television, and police blotters.
Traditionally, college spring vacations are scheduled sometime between the first Saturday in March and Easter Sunday in April. Students converge on the most fashionable spot they can afford to go to, often cramming 15 to 20 people in a motel room to limit expenses. Local bars cater to partying students, offering drink specials and rowdy entertainment such as Belly Flop, Hot Bod, and Wet T-shirt contests, designed to appeal to the young and inebriated. Vacationers sport T-shirts with such spirited slogans as, "I'm too drunk to fuck," "Party Naked," and "University of Heineken." Crowds of tourists become a nightmare for local police, snarling traffic, littering and vandalizing the streets of resort towns. Many spring breaks have turned literally riotous, resulting in destruction of property and arrests. Cleaning up after spring break becomes a major expense for cities that draw large numbers of students, though the money the students pour into a community during those first weeks of spring tends to offset the disadvantages.
In 1936, the swim coach at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, unwittingly began a tradition when he brought a few members of his swim team to train at the Casino Pool by the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The experiment was so successful that the entire team returned for Christmas vacation. In 1938, Fort Lauderdale continued to attract students as the Casino Pool hosted the first College Coaches' Swim Forum, and the famous Elbo Room opened in the Seabreeze Hotel. By 1946, in spite of wartime travel restrictions, Fort Lauderdale had become a regular destination for college students on spring vacation. Fifteen thousand student revelers came in 1953, and in 1954, 20,000 arrived and started another spring break tradition: trouble with the police. That year, eight students were arrested for disorderly conduct and two for public indecency. Two were killed in drunk-driving incidents.
Time magazine reported on the phenomenon in 1959, and in 1960 a new film solidified Fort Lauderdale as spring break capitol of the United States. Where the Boys Are, starring Connie Francis, Paula Prentiss, and Yvette Mimieux, was the film version of a 1958 novel by Glendon Swarthout. It describes the adventures of three young college women on spring vacation in Fort Lauderdale, seeking independence, fun, and romance. The film, with its clean-cut adventure and obligatory cautionary tale of the tragic end of the girl who went too far, became an icon of the spring break experience. Along with the "Beach Party" movies of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, Where the Boys Are advertised a beach vacation culture that many students were eager to emulate. By 1961, 50,000 of them flocked to Fort Lauderdale to find it.
In 1963, Palm Springs Weekend, starring Connie Stevens and Troy Donahue, advertised Palm Springs, California, as another mecca for students and by the late 1960s Florida's Daytona Beach was actively promoting itself as a spring break destination, trying to lure students and their dollars away from Fort Lauderdale. One hundred thousand students responded and converged on Daytona Beach.
The self-indulgent 1980s were peak years for the hedonistic spring revels. In 1983, the film Spring Break was released, with Tom Cruise and Shelly Long, and Where the Boys Are was remade in 1984. In 1985, spring break in Fort Lauderdale reached its height as 350,000 students crammed into the city. Fort Lauderdale had had enough. By erecting barricades between the beach and the streets and enforcing room occupancy rules and alcohol laws, the city managed to reduce its spring break tourism numbers back to 20,000 by 1989. Of those, 2,400 were arrested. Fort Lauderdale, while still a popular destination on a much smaller scale, relinquished its title of "spring break capitol" to Daytona Beach. By the mid-1990s, Daytona too was trying to find ways to manage the rowdy crowds without alienating the tourist dollars.
By the end of the 1990s, spring break vacation spots were much more varied, though there were still "hot spots" that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors. Panama City, Florida, hosted 550,000 student tourists in 1997, and little South Padre Island, Texas, which has a resident population of just over 1,000, welcomed 130,000 visitors in the spring of 1997. California also welcomed its share of visitors, especially in San Diego and Palm Springs. Ski vacations have become more and more popular and destinations like Colorado's Vail and Steamboat Springs and California's Lake Tahoe are flooded with students looking for both ski and apres-ski adventures. Foreign travel has an appeal as well, not the least of which is a drinking age of 18 in Mexico, the Bahamas, and Canada. Even in the United States, many resort towns resisted enforcing laws like the drinking age that might drive tourists away.
Many businesses not specifically related to the tourist trade also take advantage of the huge audiences drawn to spring break meccas. Daytona Beach hosts ExpoAmerica, a giant trade show with high-tech exhibits designed to appeal to modern students. Both CBS and MTV offer extensive spring break special telecasts from spots like Daytona and San Diego, to bring the festivities to those who had to stay at home. Some businesses even try to recruit employees among the crowds of student vacationers, though some report difficulties finding sober prospects.
Each generation has added its own personality to the celebration of spring break. Crazy Gregg, manager of venerable Fort Lauderdale institution the Button, explained in 1986, "Basically, we've had three different generations here. In the '50s, the kids were more mellow and conservative, not blatant. In the late '60s and early '70s, they weren't gung ho or rah-rah. They didn't seem to want to have fun. When we played 'God Bless America,' they booed us. But now the pendulum has swung completely around. They enjoy themselves to the hilt. The morality is looser. Golly, I saw a guy walk through the hotel stark naked. They wouldn't have done that 15 or 20 years ago." The 1990s has brought its own influences to the spring break phenomenon. A sharpened awareness of the problems of alcoholism has resulted in a marked decrease in the glorification of drink at resort destinations. While there is still a high level of consumption, liquor and beer company advertisements are more likely to advise caution and adherence to drinking age laws, where a decade earlier they might have focused only on the fun and excitement of drinking. Also evidence of a more serious generation is the "Breakaway" program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Started in 1991, Breakaway is a national network that arranges what it terms "alternative spring break" for students who would rather volunteer in soup kitchen, homeless shelters, and other community programs than spend a week getting drunk and having casual sex. In its first year, the Breakaway network served 2,500 students in 40 colleges nationwide. By the late 1990s, it arranged volunteer work for close to 15,000 students in 350 colleges.
Spring break came of age in the 1950s and 1960s when students needed a hedonistic outlet from a repressive society. Perhaps in the pleasure-seeking culture of the 1990s, what young people really seek is an escape from self-indulgence.
Flanagan, William P., and Diane Merelman. "Spring Break Alert."Forbes. Vol. 159, No. 4, February 24, 1997, 188l.
Kalogerakis, George. "How to Win Friends … And Throw Up on People." Esquire. Vol. 117, No. 4, April, 1992, 82.
Waldrop, Judith. "Spring Break." American Demographics. Vol. 15,No. 3, March, 1993, 52.