FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — If there’s a surviving monument to the heyday of spring break in America, it’s the Elbo Room on Fort Lauderdale Beach.
Throngs of scantily clad college students celebrating a vacation from classes once spilled from this corner dive bar every year around this time, double-fisting potent cocktails in plastic cups and overflowing onto the sidewalks and the streets.
About the only throwback to those days is the guitarist singing Lynyrd Skynyrd covers to an audience of patrons nursing Bud Lights who look as if they haven’t had to show their IDs to get a drink in decades. “The Bar That Time Forgot,” the local newspaper calls this place.
Today the Elbo Room is in the shadow of expensive condominiums and an unlikely neighbor to restaurants, boutiques, and luxury hotels that cater to families and the well-heeled leisure class. The youngest adults on the beach are the attendants wearing polo shirts arranging tidy rows of blue lounge chairs and umbrellas for the snowbirds. Where once there were belly flop, beer-guzzling, and wet T-shirt contests, couples push their children in designer strollers.
Fort Lauderdale, where spring break was invented, gradually banished it when crowds grew too raucous to be worth the money they brought in. So did other places that at first were glad to fill the vacuum but ultimately tired of the resulting bedlam. Miami Beach, where spring breakers famously flouted COVID-19 restrictions last year to let loose their pandemic frustrations in a spree of lewdness, brawling, and other mayhem, is the latest destination to tell college students not to come back.
But the destinations aren’t the only things that have been undergoing change since Connie Francis starred in “Where the Boys Are,” the 1960 movie filmed in Fort Lauderdale that institutionalized spring break. So have students. Many now spend spring break polishing their resumes with internships or by volunteering. With the cost of college so high, a smaller proportion can afford to fly off somewhere on vacation.
It’s not that spring break is dead. It’s just moved, largely across borders. Some places still want college students to come, and bring their money. The Mexican state that includes Cancún and Playa del Carmen last year relaxed its pandemic restrictions in time for spring break, allowing hotels and restaurants to increase their capacity. Travel companies that specialize in spring break are also promoting the Bahamas, Jamaica, Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, and the Mexican resort city of Cabo San Lucas.
“Non-stop parties,” promises the website of one such provider, STS Travel, which organizes beach parties, party cruises, and other events. “Blow it out with your friends for a week of sun and fun this Spring Break.”
Some experts suggest there may be a rebound in spring break travel among students this year because of pent-up demand, though STS declined to talk about spring break trends it’s seeing, citing previous bad press.
Networks of campus representatives get free trips for themselves for signing up classmates. Rates start at $1,013 for a week in a room for four people in Cancún, up to $3,623 for a single, including flights from Boston, food and drinks. Add-ons include theme parties, clubbing, and still more drinks.
That’s a lot pricier than gassing up the Rambler and driving south, as was the case in the “Where the Boys Are” days. Before it was shut down by the city, spring break in Fort Lauderdale was cheap: Shared rooms in mom-and-pop hotels near the beach that didn’t enforce many rules went for as little as what today would be $50 a night, per person.
Nor did spring breakers back then have the debt of today’s college students — $28,400 apiece, on average, for those who take out loans to get four-year degrees, the College Board says, plus an average of $1,309 in credit card debt, according to the student loan company Sallie Mae.
Some of those students instead go on service trips during spring break, doing good while burnishing their resumes. Boston and Northeastern universities both have “alternative service breaks,” for instance. Habitat for Humanity signs up thousands of college students to volunteer during spring break.
Among those traveling for leisure this year, only 9 percent planned to go to party destinations such as Daytona Beach, opting instead for places that offer a mix of rest and revelry such as Hilton Head and Key West, according to a survey by VacationRenter, a rental search platform.
“It’s not the crowded places. It’s not the population-dense party scene-type places. People just want to have some space where they can relax and unwind,” said VacationRenter CEO Heath Hammett.
Some students are opting for exotic locales such as Costa Rica and Belize, or even Europe.
“What we’re seeing from this demographic is they want an experience above and beyond just going out and drinking all day,” said Bry Roskoz, president of Cambridge-based EF Ultimate Break, which runs group tours for travelers ages 18 to 29. “They really want an Instagram-able moment, and that Instagram of partying on the beach just isn’t special or unique” — not to mention that it risks the disapproval of prospective employers.
All of these things have reduced the critical mass of students who once descended on whatever spring break destination was the favorite. An estimated 350,000 swarmed Fort Lauderdale at the peak of spring break there, in 1985, setting into motion a ban on open containers of alcohol and an appearance by the mayor on national TV telling college students to go somewhere else.
For a while, they did — first to Panama City and Daytona Beach, where MTV documented their exploits with cameras that attracted even more in the years after that. There were 450,000 in Daytona Beach in 1989 until that city sent them away, and 500,000 in Panama City by 2015, after which it, too, banned booze outdoors. Meanwhile, a spring break in Atlanta for Black students called Freaknik also came and went when authorities there cracked down.
Losing all that business initially hurt towns like Fort Lauderdale. A lot of those mom-and-pop hotels abruptly shut down.
“The beach became a blighted area,” said Ina Lee, who was part of a task force set up to find new markets. Tour groups were lured from frigid Norway and Sweden. “We did everything to try to fill hotel rooms. It took years to lose the reputation of spring break.”
Ramola Motwani and her husband bought a small beachfront hotel in Fort Lauderdale in 1986, just as spring break there was starting its decline.
“There was no business, period,” she remembered.
Slowly, however, developers began to show an interest. Motwani assembled her property and those around it into what would become the site of a massive Conrad Hotel. Workmen are putting the finishing touches on a new Four Seasons on land Motwani also once owned, just next door. There’s a Ritz-Carlton where another open-air bar called the Candy Store once packed in crowds of students for bikini contests and other stunts.
“It’s refreshing to see the mix we have now. We have families and college students, all together sharing the same beautiful beach,” said Motwani, whose family has endowed the R. Motwani Family Academy of Hospitality and Tourism Management at Broward College, named for her late husband.
“We have the kids coming back now, but they’re very different,” said Lee, 75, who publishes a local tourism guide. “It’s not like 10 kids are in a room. They’re obviously here on their parents’ credit cards and shopping at the Galleria,” a high-end mall.
“They’re much better behaved,” Lee said. “They have money to spend. They’re an important part of the economy, but only a part. They’re not the whole thing any more.”
Jon Marcus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.