In the endearingly campy 1960s spring break classic Where The Boys Are, four girls from the Midwest set out to spend a week on the Fort Lauderdale strip in pursuit of true love and truer husbands.
Forty-three years later, party-hungry spring breakers are more interested in marrying the moment of warm beaches and cool nightclubs than any potential ring-bearing nuptials. It's wild. It's intoxicating. It's a funnel of love.
Where the boys aren't
The spring break landscape has changed over the years, however. You can bet it will be fairly tame down Fort Lauderdale's Las Olas Boulevard tonight. The city got fed up with the decadence, and the students got fed up with the ordinances nearly two decades ago. You're more likely to stumble across a middle-aged, sandaled Canadian snowbird than a 20-year-old wet-T-shirt contestant these days. The college party moved up the coast to Daytona Beach. Well, that's where it went until that city, too, tired of the late-night revelry.
Florida's latest spring break hot spot is Panama City Beach. Located in the state's panhandle, but packing all of the pan's sizzle, the current coastal haven has spent hundreds of thousands to market itself and its collection of affordable lodging, clubs, and tattoo parlors to college campuses all over the country.
It actually went too far, according to the American Medical Association (AMA), which made sure the city's convention and visitors bureau toned down its ads after last year's assortment promising "all-you-can-drink" smorgasbords and "booze cruises."
But warnings from the AMA never scared off any businesses looking to cash in on that all-important, credit -card-wielding, college age group.
Big parties, big sponsors
If the coed crowds are there, so are the marketing opportunities to get to them while they're still sober. At Panama City Beach, companies like Sony
For Sony, housing the PlayStation 2 Spring Break Pavilion will give college video game buffs a chance to cool off and check out some of the company's latest software under the shade of palm trees.
And, sure, beer companies aren't going to be left out of the fun in the sun, though most of the Anheuser-Busch
Where the dollars are
Unlike the abandoned hedonistic resting places of the past, Panama City probably won't come clean anytime soon. Last year, spring breakers plunked down $25 million for lodging and another $64 million for food, drinks, and area merchandise. That's a significant chunk of Panama City's $270 million annual tourism revenue. But that's barely beer money for Fort Lauderdale's annual take of just over $4 billion on 8 million visitors last year -- a similar sum to the $3.5 billion spent by vacationers in Daytona Beach's Volusia County in 2001.
While larger cities cater to families and convention business, Panama City has no problem marketing its surfside gluttony. If there's an insane event that would make the citizens of Pompeii prude by comparison, Panama City Beach provides free shuttle service for college visitors.
With a third of March and April's tourism take tied to the wild ways of vacationing coeds, is it any wonder that even the Panama City Beach Chamber of Commerce's Official Spring Break Site proclaims, "G.P.A. stands for Great Party Action."
Last year, the city distributed two million promotional inserts in college papers. This year, it's toning down the brew-binge message but ramping up its promotional efforts with posters and a network of campus reps to pitch the area as the only destination worth considering.
But it's not. Here's a list of the biggest players in the spring break sweepstakes.
Top Five Spring Break Havens For 2003
City Est. Visitors
1. Panama City Beach, Florida 450,0002. South Padre Island, Texas 150,0003. Daytona Beach, Florida 150,0004. Cancun, Mexico 100,0005. Lake Havasu City, Arizona 40,000
Lave Havasu City, Arizona? Who knew? Arizona, Texas, and California have their own spring break magnets, though they don't look like they'll be challenging Panama City's throne anytime soon. In fact, Panama City's biggest competitor could lie south of the border.
The border patrol
Cancun has become a popular alternative because it offers what Florida's strict drinking laws don't. The legal drinking age in Mexico is 18, freeing up the inhibitions of undergraduates who would have to wait three years to legally buy alcohol in Florida.
Not to mention the proliferation of dirt-cheap travel deals. Sabre's
Students, and often their parents, worked hard to save money for college, and in this soft economy, no aspiring hub of spring break action can afford to pick the pockets of thrifty coeds.
One more factor playing in favor of the country's holiday hot spots is the bubbling political climate. While exotic locales in Europe and the Caribbean have made for ideal getaways in the past, no one wants to get caught overseas if war breaks out.
The Loveless Boat
You already know the airlines are hurting, but did you know cruise companies are smarting, too? Carnival
While the notion of swimming with stingrays and snorkeling the Caribbean's blue waters may be tempting this time of year, few college students will chance being too far away from home in these politically uncertain times.
Then again, we're a country calling for economic and political resolve; maybe we can learn something from the passed-out Panama City partygoers. Disconnecting from the daily grind and releasing some stress between course loads might be just what the doctor ordered. Although, something to cure that wicked hangover you'll have the next morning would help.
Rick Aristotle Munarriz is a proud graduate of the University of Miami -- the original Suntan U. And he turned out OK, didn't he? No? Go Canes! Rick's stock holdings can be viewed online, as can the Fool's disclosure policy.