Spring break into action

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

Spring break -- the collegiate ritual, the parental horror show, the thriving industry -- is here. And given the varying schedules of our nation's college campuses, it will be with us, for better and for worse, through early April.

Like an ineradicable weed, the tradition is driven by powerful biology and fueled by exposure to sun and water through deceptively complex roots. And yet, unlike an ineradicable weed, its history includes George Hamilton, Sonny Bono and a staggering number of sons and daughters of California.

Between now and April 6, thousands of California college students will head to Mexico, Las Vegas or Lake Havasu in Arizona. An estimated 225,000 revelers are expected in Panama City Beach, Fla., the unofficial North American capital of spring breakage.

And smaller versions ("more modest" would be the wrong phrase) of the same scene will erupt -- often with the encouragement of civic leaders who can't resist the cash infusion -- at Miami's South Beach, Key West and Daytona Beach in Florida; South Padre Island in Texas; Myrtle Beach in South Carolina; and Jamaica and the Bahamas.

Mexico lures many with its legal drinking age of 18, rather than the usual 21 in the U.S. And tour operators and resort companies woo students by assembling packages that bundle airfare, lodging, meals, access to "VIP" rooms and often drinks as well. Wander into any spring-break zone and you'll find that even the most scantily clad celebrants are sporting color-coded plastic bracelets to affirm their party privileges. (And even if spring-breakers don't buy a tour operator's package, in Mexico they're likely to find clubs that charge $25 to $35 for admission, then serve beer at no charge.)

To be sure, these partying legions are but a small part of the 17 million U.S. college students. And many young people fill their spring breaks in wholesome and constructive ways.

But when March rolls around each year, the deeds and misdeeds of the spring breakers can be striking and profitable (especially for operators of nightclubs) and scary (especially if you're one of their parents).

The U.S. State Department, which estimates that more than 100,000 American teenagers and young adults travel to Mexico for spring break each year, notes that although most students enjoy themselves, "several may die, hundreds will be arrested, and still more will make mistakes that could affect them for the rest of their lives."

Inevitably, the mix of free-flowing alcohol and rampant hooking-up will yield profound headaches, sunburns and varying degrees of embarrassment, some involving video footage. And some of the trouble will go deeper: money lost to dodgy travel companies; injuries; arrests; and perhaps worse.

"Probably 98% of our kids don't get into any sort of trouble," says Thomas Betz, an attorney with Student Legal Service serving the 41,000-student University of Illinois campus in Urbana. But in 23 years of legal service to spring-breakers fleeing chilly Illinois, Betz said, he has reckoned with everything from jellyfish stings to hot-tub burn (something to do with over-chlorination) to Mexican incarcerations.

If a student is caught buying drugs in Mexico, Betz said, "that's when all hell breaks looses." He tells families to hire a Mexican attorney immediately -- big hotels often keep a list at the desk -- and expect to pay $500 to $2,500 in bail and fines if the offense is a small amount of marijuana. If it's a large amount, or a stronger drug, Betz said, it gets worse.

Kristen Celko, vice president of marketing and e-commerce in North America for the global student travel agency STA Travel, calls spring break "the biggest international movement that you have during the school year." At STA, which has 11 offices in Southern California, year-over-year spring-break numbers continue to grow, she said, surpassing those for Thanksgiving or New Year's Eve.

Acapulco, Mexico, is especially strong this year, Celko said, drawing students from East and West coasts. (It accounted for about 25% of STA's spring-break packages sales this year; a typical package costs $500 for round-trip airfare and four nights' shared lodging.)

But Costa Rica is coming on as well, Celko said, with spring bookings up 21% from last year. If this continues, "I think over the next few years, we'll see [Costa Rica] as the No. 1 or No. 2 destination for spring breakers from the West Coast," Celko said.

Among U.S. spring-break destinations, several industry veterans say, Las Vegas has been gaining ground.

The attraction is no great mystery, especially with flights so frequent and relatively inexpensive, and rooms plentiful. The problem with so many students going to Las Vegas, said Illinois attorney Betz, is "most of them are not of legal age to gamble, and most of them cannot legally drink, either. Somehow there's this assumption that if there are enough of you there, this [legal barrier] will all go away."

As a result, Betz says, he sees a lot of "drinking under-age" cases (which typically result in fines), but things get worse when students are caught with fake identification, which can put them "in the felony zone."

If you or somebody on your insurance policy is considering a venture into the world of spring-breakery -- or if you're looking to stay out of the din -- here are a few things to know about seven popular spring break destinations:

Lake Havasu City, Ariz

This town of 55,000 expects 15,000 to 20,000 visitors during the last three weeks of March, many of them college students from California, Arizona and Colorado. The town is about 10 miles from the California border and 60 miles south of Las Vegas.

Hot spots: The Kokomo Havasu club, part of London Bridge Resort & Convention Center,features 10,000 square feet, a pool, four levels, a signature drink (the Tremor); and no dress code to speak of. Other clubs include the Naked Turtle, and the 139-room waterfront Nautical Inn Resort (which bumps up its refundable room deposits for the occasion) is said to be the scene of much action as well. Meanwhile out on the water, students occupy scores of houseboats and other vessels, many of them rented from outfitters like Arizona Watersports and Paradise Boat Rentals. Many gather at Bridgewater Channel (a mile-long stretch beneath the city's imported London Bridge), Copper Canyon (a cove with rocks that daredevils jump from), Steamboat Cove and Satellite Cove.

But the mayhem peaked during the MTV years in the early 1990s, and there's talk that the Mexican outpost of Puerto Penasco, 60 miles south of the Arizona border, has been stealing market share.

Fear factor: Not what it used to be, since MTV stopped coming. But Arizona's public officials would like to remind all parties that it is just as illegal to drive a boat drunk as it is to drive a car that way. Also, in August, the Lake Havasu City Council imposed a new ordinance banning offensive behavior, including public intoxication, exposing oneself and vulgarity. The ordinance sets penalties at fines up to $2,500 and up to six months in prison -- and city spokesman Charlie Cassens says it was summer crowds that prompted that move, not spring-breakers. Nowadays, Cassens says, "The college students that we see here during spring break are well-behaved, especially when you compare them with some of the folks who come here on summer weekends. We're glad they're here."

Las Vegas

Hot spots: They're everywhere, including the 40,000-square-foot PURE Nightclub at Caesars Palace (opened in 2004); Prive at Planet Hollywood Resort & Casino and the Bank at Bellagio (both of which opened this year); the 26,000-square-foot LAX at Luxor (which opened last year and stages weekly bikini contests). The Palms Casino Resort features a Playboy Club (on the 52nd floor), the Pearl Theater and Moon, a nightclub with a retractable roof. The Hard Rock Hotel has its Body English nightclub and The Joint concert venue.

Fear factor: If gamblers as a group lose more than they win, how do you suppose young, drunk gamblers do? Also, Vegas casinos, clubs and police are vigilant about underage drinkers and gamblers. "If you're not 21," says Erika Pope, spokeswoman for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority, "you're going to be shut out of a lot of what people come to Las Vegas to do. The traditional college population isn't Las Vegas' target audience."

Panama City Beach, Fla.

Hot spots: Club La Vela claims to be the largest in the country. Its main rival: Spinnaker. Sharky’s on the beach is big for concerts, with a restaurant and bar. A popular hotel is the Holiday Inn Sunspree on the beach. (Victoria’s Secret is doing a promotion there.) Also new this year is Pier Park, a beachfront retail, restaurant and entertainment complex with 900,000 square feet. These venues share 27 miles of beach and draw an estimated 225,000 or more spring-breakers to a city of 38,000. Most bars don't close until 4 a.m.

And, not least, there's the powerful buzz that comes with having MTV cameras on hand. Compared with former spring break destination Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, "the prices are lower, the beaches are more beautiful, the bars are open until 4," says Marta Rose, senior marketing vice president for Panama City Beaches Chamber of Commerce. "We look after the kids, but at the same time, we don't want to be in their face."

Fear factor: This where the "Girls Gone Wild" video empire got a lot of its footage -- more specifically, footage of underage girls in sexual situations at the Château Motel. This is also where "Girls Gone Wild" impresario (and USC alumnus) Joe Francis was arrested in 2007 in connection with legal wrangling over the videos. (He pleaded guilty to contempt of court and has since been transferred to a lock-up in Reno, Nev., where he awaits trial on tax-evasion charges.)

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Hot spots: Clubs include the Palladium (about 2,500 capacity), which sits high on a hillside with enormous windows and features a 4 a.m. "dance with the devil". Baby’O is a jungle. El Alebrije holds more people than the Palladium and has an indoor waterfall. Disco Beach, an outdoors bar, throws foam parties on Fridays. And at Barba Roja, they dress like pirates. The 420-room Hotel Emporio Continental is usually busy.

Fear factor: The U.S. State Department says that "drug-related violence has been increasing in Acapulco. Although this violence is not targeted at foreign residents or tourists, U.S. citizens in these areas should be vigilant in their personal safety." In their online advice for spring-breakers and their families, State Department officials note that "several American citizens have died while swimming in rough surf at the Revolcadero Beach near Acapulco."

Cancun, Mexico

Hot spots: Gorgeous water, treacherous tides, about 570,000 locals, more than 20,000 hotel rooms and too many tipsy Americans to count. Perhaps 200,000, perhaps 300,000 spring-breakers have gathered for spring breaks in past years on Cancún's 14-mile hotel row. The damages wrought by Hurricane Wilma in 2005 may have discouraged some, but Mexico has spent billions rebuilding (and adding sand back to the beaches). The 1,008-room Oasis Cancun hotel (11 restaurants, 10 bars) is in the middle of the action, offering all-meals, all-drinks packages for less than $150 nightly to students who sleep three or four to a room. By March 7, the hotel was sold out for the month. (One critic at TripAdvisor complains that the hotel "is mostly for young people partying every night acting stupid and drunk.") Clubs include the City, Dady’O, Coco Bongo and Bulldog. Fear factor: The U.S. State Department notes "increasing reports of crime" in Cancun and Cozumel, often involving nightclubs. Officials urge visitors to travel in pairs or groups and leave valuables behind, and also note the "very strong undertow" along Cancún's beach "from the Hyatt Regency all the way south to Club Med. Already this season, several U.S. citizens have drowned when overwhelmed by ocean conditions. In Cozumel, several drownings and near-drownings have been reported on the east coast, particularly in the Playa San Martin-Chen Rio area."

Los Cabos, Mexico

Hot spots: The city of Cabo San Lucas, the slightly quieter city of San Jose del Cabo, and the 18-mile waterfront corridor between them have turned Baja's southern tip into a playground for golfers, fishing enthusiasts and party people of collegiate years and beyond. Beachfront hot spots include Billygan’s Island, Mango Deck and the Office, all on oft-crowded Medano beach. Also there is the Melia San Lucas Hotel and its upscale Nikki Beach nightclub (DJs, tepees and lounge beds). Other clubs include the Zoo Club, Nowhere Bar, and still-popular with old-timers Cabo Wabo, El Squid Roe (where waiters patrol like fumigators with spray tanks of tequila) and the Giggling Marlin.

Fear factor: The State Department says you should worry about beaches on the Pacific side of Cabo San Lucas, which are "dangerous due to rip tides and rogue waves." But there's considerable peril also in attempting to join the "Too Much Fun" club at the Giggling Marlin. (To get in, you have to drink four "Skip and Go Naked" cocktails.)

Rosarito Beach, Mexico

Hot spots: About 18 miles south of the border in northernmost Baja, Rosarito beckons (in a loud, cheesy, dusty sort of way) with a drinking age of 18 and more than a dozen nightclubs featuring beer pong, foam parties and pimp-and-ho dress-up nights. The biggest club is the 47,000-square-foot Papas & Beer (mechanical bull, rock-climbing wall).Others include Club Animale, Club Maya and the new Coco Beach Club (where another mechanical bull is promised). The Festival Plaza Hotel, a riot of colors, is a hub of spring break events.

Fear factor: Tourism to northern Baja has been traumatized by escalating battles among the region's drug lords and police along with several incidents of travelers being targeted. The number of travelers affected is tiny compared with the number of Americans passing through, but the reports came in tandem with heightened border ID requirements. The result: Travel to Tijuana, Rosarito and Ensenada has slowed notably, and Tijuana's downtown merchants' organization has estimated that tourism is down 90% since 2005. (Though all air travelers now need passports to visit Mexico, visitors by land can show a driver's license and birth certificate.)


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