The Death of Spring Break - Fort Lauderdale

photos courtesy Art Seitz


 by Robert A. Dressler
Mayor of Fort Lauderdale, March 1982 - November 1986


When I was elected in March of 1982, I never expected be "the Mayor who killed Spring Break".  Growing up here, I loved Spring Break.  All of us high school kids would put on a college sweatshirt, go to the beach and pretend to be college students (usually unsuccessfully). Besides, being from Fort Lauderdale was cool, everyone knew about Spring Break and "Where The Boys Are".  It was a continuing source of national publicity, for better or worse.

The "spring break" phenomenon started with the Collegiate "Swim Forum" in the mid-1930s and continued in the late 1940s by returning soldiers and sailors were stationed here during WW 2 and then went to college under the GI Bill.

Historically, the City has had a fairly tolerant relationship with Spring Break. In 1953, the City actually promoted it. Then came "Where the Boys Are", which premiered at the Gateway Theater in December 1960. The next year, there was a so-called "mob" of 60,000 students, and the famous Gene Hyde photograph of a student hanging from the light post at Las Olas and A1A  was prominently displayed in Life magazine.

For twenty more years, the crowds for Spring Break waxed and waned, and by the early 1980's Spring Break was not a significant problem. However, the central beach area had become a slum, feasting off Spring Break for two months (an estimated 60% of The Button's annual revenue) and then catering to the tri-county biker and pickup-truck party crowd the rest of the year.  Crime, runaways and prostitution were rampant. In 1982, the City started a "Visioning" process. Improving the beach was a top priority, and the planning process was well along by 1985.

The Tsunami
In retrospect, the 1985 Spring Break was a "tsunami", but there were smaller waves which preceded it.

In March 1983, the movie "Spring Break" showed Fort Lauderdale as a crazy drunken scene, which was becoming true, and approximately 200,000 students showed up.  Then, in late 1983, the Broward County Tourist Development Council  (the "TDC", now the Convention and Visitors Bureau) commissioned  a now-famous Spring Break poster and placed ads in college papers throughout the country. The poster, designed by a Mad Magazine artist, showed hordes of scantily-clothed students cavorting around Fort Lauderdale's beach.

By 1984, there were 250-300,000 students, and with the excessive numbers, the level of behavior also deteriorated.  National publicity focused on the raucus and sleazy, and family tourism and business meetings were being driven away. After reviewing all the problems and complaints, the Fort Lauderdale City Commission voted in July 1984 to ask the TDC to stop advertising Spring Break.  The TDC refused, as they were receiving a large amount of tax revenue from Fort Lauderdale's problems.

In March 1985, the tsunami hit with full force.  At least 350,000 students were jammed into a short spring break period.  The result was chaos.  The beach became impassible.  The phones at City Hall became jammed with complaints from residents being trapped in their apartments and their yards and bushes becoming sleeping spots, toilets, and worse. A headline from the Fort Lauderdale News stated "City a 'war zone'..."

The citizens of Fort Lauderdale were outraged at seeing the City's reputation change from "the Venice of America to the Tijuana of the America", as one resident put it.  A special public hearing held by the Beach Advisory Board in mid-April was mobbed by over 300 angry citizens. The Chairman of the TDC was "booed and hissed".  The message from the community was loud and clear.  Enough!

The City Manager and a staff Spring Break Team were already working on a detailed list of  safety improvements for 1986, which were reviewed with the "Spring Break Task Force" composed of all interested parties: residents, beach bar and hotel/motel owners, public safety officials, etc.

Steps included  an ordinance prohibiting open containers at the beach, strict law enforcement and increased code enforcement of capacity and fire safety.  Most controversial was the "Wall", a pedestrian separator to allow a wider sidewalk and keep students out of the traffic flow, but which was compared in the media to a concentration camp wall. None of the changes were easy to agree upon or implement, but everyone knew major changes had to be made.

1986 was another large Spring Break, but definitely tamer with the increased enforcement (2,506 arrests, but only 750 college students) and safer..  Even the reviled "Wall" was ultimately praised by former opponents for increasing student safety. However, the national media played up the restrictions with headlines like "crackdown" and "police state" and pictures of the "Berlin Wall", etc. This allowed other areas like Daytona Beach to make aggressive pitches for the students (a decision they later regretted).  Penrod's moved to Daytona and closed in locally in late 1986, marking the end of an era.

By 1987, the crowds were much smaller, and Spring Break was declared "dead".

Beach Revitalization
Since 1982, even as Spring Break was exploding, the City had been working on plans for the revitalization of the central beach area under the leadership of City Manager Connie Hoffman.  In May 1984, Second Century Broward held an influential Beach Symposium with representatives of the various beach interests to discuss the plans. By June 1985, a comprehensive Central Beach Redevelopment Plan was in the works, and a nationally-known consultant, Sasaki and Associates, was hired.

In November 1986, the City's "Shine On" General Obligation Bond issue was overwhelmingly approved by the citizens, providing almost $14 million (a large amount back then) for the beach redevelopment, including funds to acquire land to remove beach parking, provide the pedestrian promenade and widen sidewalks, the one-way street pairing with Seabreeze Blvd., parking lots and other improvements, including the now-famous Wave Wall. Today

In retrospect, Spring Break was a valuable part of Fort Lauderdale during the City's younger years, but it became a victim of its own excesses. To the extent that Spring Break was "killed", it was self-defense for the City.  In reality, Spring Break died of its own excesses.  Spring Break, R.I.P.

Now, over twenty-five years later, everyone seems to agree with the City's decision to curtail Spring Break

During a tourism slump in 2009, some businesses again raised the issue.  The president of the Convention and Visitors Bureau (successor to the TDC) strongly opposed the idea, saying "Our decision to end Spring Break in 1986 has driven visitor growth from one half million annually to 10.8 million visitors in 2008.  It has allowed us to attract a significant investment in hotel, retail and restaurant development and build a first-class airport and convention center." (emphasis added). For our 2012 "Spring Break" season, overall tourism is reportedly the best since 2006.

Robert A. Dressler
Mayor of Fort Lauderdale, March 1982 - November 1986




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