How to win friends…
The beach is a police state, the sponsors won't leave you alone, and the old condom‑on‑the-head joke just isn't funny anymore. A complete and (almost) fluid-free guide to Spring Break
By George Kalogerakis
Picture Editor: Betsy Horan
Bikini contest, The Coliseum, Daytona Beach, Florida, 1991
If, in the late 1930s, anyone had asked a member of one of the college swim teams training in Fort Lauderdale to imagine the town several decades later, it's a pretty safe bet he wouldn't have responded along these lines: "I see people ‑hundreds of thousands of them‑ swallowing complicated drink concoctions from large metal pails. I see a pool, a stage ... rubber hoses.... some sort of contest? Lots of white sand nearby ‑my God, people are burning! Wait. Now a dark, noisy room. I see someone holding a young woman upside down by her ankles. There is a banana…
Who could have been so clairvoyant?
Fort Lauderdale may have recently banished Spring Break, but elsewhere, in Florida and Texas and Colorado and Cancùn, from February through April, the students still descend, like libidinous locusts with billfolds and an overwhelming sun fixation. And it's not just a matter of escaping the cold. Droves of students also abandon the comparatively sun‑drenched West Coast campuses, responding, not unlike the monarch butterfly, to some deep‑rooted genetic impulse that tells them to go to Mazatlán, Vail, even Hawaii. (The similarity to the monarch ends, incidentally, the moment the student puts on a beer helmet.) But love it or hate it‑depending on your world view, a crowded nightclub full of drunk, sunburned people is either paradise or hell‑Spring Break has always been a transforming experience. Transforming, because traditions must be honored and inhibitions forgotten. Mousey biology majors find themselves advancing in a wet T‑shirt competition and, in a moment of delirious, liberating abandon, decide to flash the seething masses. Chubby losers from down the dorm corridor learn the real way to make friends ‑excel at belly flopping. Of course, there's also the thrill of sex ‑or at the very least the thrill of lying down on top of someone who's lying on her back on a raft and then paddling together across the pool for prize money.
And wait till the end of the week, when things loosen up.
…and throw up on people
The image of Spring Break has itself undergone a transformation over the years: Innocent fun gave way to raucous carousing, which, in turn, gave way to a kind of jolly police‑state‑by‑the‑sea atmosphere with intensive merchandising. Spring Break has now, figuratively if not literally, been trademarked.
Corporate sponsors ‑Daytona Beach, for example, boasts more than two hundred‑ have joined with host communities to guide students away from hot‑oil wrestling, balcony jumping, and irresponsible serious drinking, and toward tug‑of‑war competitions, human logos, and responsible serious drinking.
Daytona Beach, Florida, 1991: Beer bonging.
Student hotel room.
"Spring Break is big business," says Richard Tarzian of InterCollegiate Communications. "My corporate sponsors don't want to be involved if it's not an organized event."
In addition, corporations have worked with campus groups such as BACCHUS (Boost Alcohol Consciousness Concerning the Health of University Students) to rally students, police forces, and businesses around worthy initiatives like Party Smart and Safe Spring Break. At several destinations, students sign cards pledging to not drink and drive, and seriously overextended revelers are now poured into shuttle buses and deposited in roiling heaps in front of their hotels. For those whose idea of community service goes beyond assembling a beer bong, Break Away and Habitat for Humanity are two national organizations that promote what you might call a politically correct Spring Break -building houses, working with the homeless (and you still get to take a very, very long car ride).
But is there such a thing as too much structure? One college administrator says that recently he has felt "a sense of urgency from the students‑that any time they got their hands on any alcohol or any substance to party with, they wanted to do it up big because they didn't know the next time they were gonna be able to do it. There may be less drinking overall, but there's definitely more drinking to excess now."
Generally, though, the drinking is safer, and so is the sex. Condoms are no longer serving primarily as evening headgear. They are everywhere. People hand them out, sell them, throw them at you. And kids claim they're using them. As one male student puts it, "I wanna get laid just as much as before, but, you know, not get something I can't throw back. The point is: We're college students‑but that doesn't mean we're stupid."
Exactly. Students should never be underestimated. Just as they can make arrangements for safe drinking and sex, so too can they plan intelligently for the possibility of arrest. Some choose to contribute in advance to communal contingency funds that can be drawn upon for bond money (or, alternatively, squandered on beer the second night out. If that should happen on South Padre Island, Texas, not to worry: The court accepts Visa and MasterCard).
Spring Break, like all things, eventually comes to an end. Romances are cut short. Concrete barricades are pulled up from thoroughfares, vending machines from hotel pools. The police departments begin the traditional Gathering of the Fake IDs. And the planning ‑now informed by hard‑won experience- begins for next year.
For example, when University of Wisconsin administrator Greg Diekroeger again leads his students to Florida, he will lead from the air.
"I did the bus once, and I never... ever... will do that again," he says, with evident emotion. "You could have auctioned off a can of Lysol for ten bucks, easily. Now we always put out at least three cans of Lysol on the bus. Last year they couldn't empty the toilets when they got down there. So when the buses picked them up‑you know how everyone likes to sit in the back and party? Well, they were fighting for the seats in the front."
The bus story could be a metaphor of sorts for the entire institution. Spring Break spent years having too much fun in the back of the bus. Now it's trying to clean up its act, maybe move to better seats with a clearer view. But it's still packing the Lysol, just in case.