The History of Spring Break

Panama City Beach continues to be the reigning spring break capital of the world, but for how much longer?

Local officials seem to have reached a breaking point with the college students' behavior and are preparing to institute some major changes.

But to see where we're going, it may help to see where spring break's been.

Panama City Beach is not the first Florida city that's attempted to tame spring break.

Historians joke that spring break can be blamed on the ancient Greeks and Romans, who celebrated the arrival of spring by worshipping the gods of wine, but the history of the spring break as we know it begins years later, on the other side of the world.

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the 1930's.

Swim coach Sam Ingram brought his team to the only Olympic-sized pool in Florida.

Teammates told friends about their Florida retreat, and by 1960 Fort Lauderdale began seeing an influx of spring breakers.

A 1961 film entitled "Where The Boys Are," brought even more attention to the area, and by 1985, almost 400,000 students crowded "Fort Liquordale" each year.

MTV even launched a new spring break show there.

But when predators began following spring breakers to the area, city commissioners cracked down on alcohol restrictions, ending the beach's reign as "spring break capitol".

In 1986, MTV moved spring break to a more permissive beach: Daytona.

Three hundred fifty thousand students traveled there each spring during its peak in the late 1980's, but by the late 1990's, Daytona's local government also banned alcohol on the beach.

Spring break campaigns began targeting a new area.

"The old byline for Panama City Beach was after Labor Day and probably until the first of May, you could fire a cannon down Front Beach Road and wouldn't hit a single vehicle or soul," Guy Tunnell, Bay County Sheriff from 1989-2003, said.

But by the mid-1990's, the landscape on the gulf shores began to change.

"We started to see some pretty significant numbers and we had some real problems with the new designer drugs."

In 1997, MTV's spring break show led to a much more controversial series in Panama City Beach: Joe Francis' "Girls Gone Wild".

"That put a unique spin on it. That was toward the end of my career and I think that was the beginning of what we have seen now."

After Francis was arrested in 2003, after videotaping topless underage girls, the show left Panama City Beach.

But the party-scene remained.

Ten years later, current Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen says the backdrop grows worse each year.

"Most college students were like, 'Oh my god, my mother's gonna find out and I'm done for.' Now it's like, 'Eff my mother and eff the police,'" McKeithen said.

Only 217 sworn in deputies battle the spring break crowd of 500,000.

And all of them wear a bulletproof vest.

In 2013, dispatch created a new radio channel dedicated solely to spring break calls.

The sheriff's office moved its mobile jail to the beach, EMS stands by around the clock, and police officers are armed with riot equipment.

"We're better than this, I'll say that."

The real question is, 'How can we market Panama City Beach to attract guests besides college students?' Fort Lauderdale and Daytona still have a spring break. It's just smaller and more controlled, unlike the massive crowds that have crowned this area as the spring break capital.

Ft. Lauderdale absorbed the economic impact of losing spring break better than Daytona, which is smaller.

Panama City Beach City Council members plan to discuss new spring break ordinances at this next meeting next month.


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