Web posted Friday, March 30, 2001

photo: state

College students shop as adult vacationers relax in rocking chairs, right, at Beach Place, a multi-story shopping, restaurant and entertainment venue on the beach in Fort Lauderdale, Wednesday, March 28. Fort Lauderdale has graduated from its spring break days of overflowing bars, lewd behavior and litter-filled beaches. The city has redefined itself as a destination for families, business travelers and upscale college students.
The Associated Press

Fort Lauderdale says goodbye to wild, youthful spring breaks

Associated Press

FORT LAUDERDALE -- As a flamenco dancer twirled her ruffled red dress in front of a middle-aged audience at BeachPlace, 20-year-old Nate Dunlap wondered whether spring break could get any lamer.

"I guess I always assumed it was a spring break haven. I don't know why I assumed that," said the Cornell University sophomore. "College is definitely crazier, but it's colder."

Fort Lauderdale was immortalized as a spring break destination in the 1960 movie "Where the Boys Are." But the city has graduated from the days of overflowing bars, lewd behavior and litter-filled beaches. It has redefined itself as a spot for families, business travelers and well-to-do college students.

On a recent Wednesday, businessmen in ties sipped beers on their lunch break as college students in bathing suits tossed a volleyball on the beach.

"The younger kids that are here now, they're more mature," said Scott Loiselle, a manager at Hooters restaurant. "They're not as rowdy. We haven't had a fight yet."

In the early 1980s, hundreds of thousands of young people descended on the city, turning it upside down. They destroyed hotel rooms, left trash on the beach and scared away locals. In 1986, two spring breakers died in falls from balconies, and a third was killed in a motorcycle crash.

Faced with a record 350,000 students in 1985, business leaders and City Council decided to make a change. Mayor Robert Dressler went on ABC's "Good Morning America" to say that college students were no longer welcome.

The City Council said no to MTV and inflatable beers cans and passed a law forbidding open alcoholic containers on the beach side of U.S. Highway A1A. Overnight parking on the beach was also prohibited.

Police strictly enforced the new ordinances the following year, arresting almost 2,500 people during spring break. The students started staying away. Only 60,000 visited during spring break 1988. About 25,000 are expected this spring.

The city's raucous reputation lingered even after more and more students opted for other party locations, such as Panama City Beach, Daytona Beach and Cancun, Mexico.

"It probably took 10 years before we could go out and pass the straight-faced test in the marketplace and say we had an alternate destination to sell," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Tourism officials are trying to market Fort Lauderdale as an upscale paradise, where Ferraris and Porsches purr down boulevards and sophisticated tourists dine in fine restaurants, as they do in Palm Beach or Miami.

While the marketing efforts have not completely erased the wet-and-wild image -- in mid-March, a New Jersey teen-ager died after falling from a motel balcony in Fort Lauderdale's first serious spring break accident since 1986 -- the shift away from spring break has begun to pay off.

The $110 million spent by students during spring break in the mid-1980s has been more than offset by the $773 million currently spent by tourists during the same period, Grossman said.

The Greater Fort Lauderdale/Broward County Convention Center, opened in 1991, will be the site of 23 conventions from January through June 2001. The meetings will bring an estimated 100,000 visitors and more than 175,000 room nights, with an economic impact totaling an estimated $106 million, Grossman said.

To attract well-heeled tourists, hotels, restaurants and shopping areas have had to undergo renovations, much to the delight of older tourists who first visited the city decades ago.

Ken Johnson, 65, of Westfield, Mass., toured the city 30 years ago during a visit to his parents' home -- a trip that coincided with spring break.

"Some places were downhill," said Johnson, after taking an afternoon cruise along the Intracoastal Waterway. "Now this is upscale. It's a lot nicer." A1A is still lined with tattoo parlors, T-shirt shops and open-air bars, but upscale businesses are slowly pushing their way in. A five-star hotel is being built on the lot where a popular spring break bar, the Candy Store, used to sit.

Even the cheapest beachside hotels were too expensive for Dunlap and his friend, Justin Gray, 20, of Union College in Schenectady, N.Y. They decided to stay downtown for $50 a night.

Dunlap, who spent his first week of spring break in New Orleans, said he wasn't sure yet whether the plane ticket to South Florida was worth it.

"New Orleans was kickin'. I haven't seen anything like that yet," he said.

On the Net:

Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor's Bureau: www.sunny.org

BeachPlace: www.fortlauderdalebeach.com/beachplace

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