Humble history of a holiday gone wild

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The roots of spring break?

Nesting birds, rutting beasts, rising sap, you know.

But there's also a specifically American angle: In 1936, the swim coach of Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y., brought his team to Fort Lauderdale to practice at the Casino Pool, which was the first Olympic-size pool in Florida.

It went well, so the next year he brought the whole team, and then Fort Lauderdale started staging the College Coaches' Swim Forum, again at the Casino Pool. And as it happens, the Elbo Room bar opened in 1938 at the Seabreeze Hotel, and started drawing a lot of off-duty military from posts nearby. Apparently, one thing led to another. And though the hottest spring break heat is now elsewhere, the bar remains, with webcams.

But it might be easier to simply blame "Where the Boys Are," which premiered in 1960 and gave George Hamilton one of his first high-profile tanning opportunities. The movie, which co-starred Dolores Hart, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis, was set in Fort Lauderdale and did well. Then in 1983 came the film "Spring Break," again set in Fort Lauderdale; and in 2003 came "The Real Cancún," a "reality movie" about 16 American college students on spring break in Mexico. Those films didn't do so well but by then it hardly mattered.

By 1985, Fort Lauderdale's spring student crowds had reached 350,000 and local leaders were ready to call it quits -- for all the mayhem they caused, the students weren't spending enough money. Later, Daytona Beach took over the lead role in Florida, and then Panama City Beach.

In California, Palm Springs rose and then fell as a hot destination. The late Sonny Bono gets credit or blame for ending the party because, as Palm Springs mayor in 1991, he led the Palm Springs City Council in banning thong bathing suits. The hordes moved on.

Now spring break is a full-blown industry, with dozens of tour operators focusing on a market of not-especially-discriminating college kids. Some companies charter cruise ships from Port Everglades for trips to the Bahamas. MTV's mtvU is establishing a Spring Break Village and sponsoring several concerts from now through March 22 at Panama City Beach's Boardwalk Beach Resort Hotel. Victoria's Secret has a dedicated page of Spring Break fashions on its website.

Arthur Carey, president of San Diego-based Mexico Destinations and a 12-year veteran of spring break travel, said he expects "a little over 100,000" American college students to visit Rosarito Beach between March 13 and April 6. This sounds crazy for a city with only about 1,000 hotel rooms, but Carey added that the spring-break visitor number was about twice as high in 2006 and 2007. Carey blames this year's decline on confusion over border-crossing requirements (if you fly, you must show a passport; if you drive, you can show a passport or a birth certificate and driver's license) and media coverage of rising crime in and around Tijuana.

Predictably, scam artists have seized on the spring break scene. In 1999, more than a dozen state attorney generals, including California's, got together with federal officials to sue a batch of tour operators who were accused of failing to deliver on Mexican and Caribbean spring break reservations. Those companies have vanished or changed names -- the churn among tour operators is considerable.

In fact, said Celko of STA Travel, "I don't know that the spring break market is growing as fast as the number of spring break operators is."

Travel professionals say spring break travelers should look for tour operators with several years of history (and confirmable street addresses) that accept credit cards and belong to organizations like the Better Business Bureau and the American Society of Travel Agents. Whenever possible, travelers should also double-check their reservations directly with airlines and hotels (and it wouldn't hurt to make sure the number of "roommates" per lodging matches your expectation).

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