Anyone over 30 stepping onto a Florida beach this month, beware. You are about to feel very, very old.
Out there on the hot sand are thousands of youthful bronzed bodies, basking in the UV rays as the smell of sun block and stale beer hangs heavy in the air.
It's spring break again -- that rite of passage for the college generation where sun is king, booze is bountiful and the only rule is to try to avoid the rules.
This year more than 1 million revelers will descend on Florida and the Caribbean, driven by the simple urge to kick back and relax in a warm, Southern clime.
"It's just an experience," says 22-year-old Michael Sirohi, a sophomore at the University of Maryland at College Park. "You meet people from colleges all over the country, you do exactly what you want to do and there are no worries."
Spring break, running usually from mid-March through the middle of April, is a time when students take a breather after mid-term exams before heading back to finish out the semester.
This tradition was immortalized in the late '50s and early '60s by movies such as "Beach Blanket Bingo" and "Where the Boys Are," which reminded the country what it meant to be a co-ed on the loose during the crazy days of spring.
But the glory days of Fort Lauderdale, arguably the original spring break town, are gone. Police crackdowns and a community that had its fill of frolicking youth caused many students to forgo the legendary beach resort. But break time is big business and, according to Mike Rush, sales director for Student Travel Services, locations like Daytona and Panama City in Florida and the Caribbean islands have stepped in to fill the void.
"Spring break is spreading out more than ever before," says Evelyn Fina, president of Mid Florida Marketing and Research Inc., which collects and analyzes data from the Florida break scene. "Students are hearing the siren song of other locations for the same price."
This year, Mr. Sirohi's destination is Panama City, where he and 11 friends ("There are six of us officially," he says) plan to cram into a condominium for one week.
Accommodations are usually a major expense, and it is not uncommon for a large group to pack into one room to cut the
cost for the week's lodgings.
According to Mr. Rush, students pay anywhere from $50 to $250 per person for lodging for a week in Florida, with prices escalating in locations outside the country.
Mr. Sirohi has been scrimping and saving all semester from his on-campus job to pay for the trip. He estimates he will pay $79 for the room, and about $500 for "alcohol, bars and stuff."
Johns Hopkins University student Leah Schmulewitz admits money is definitely an issue when deciding whether to head south.
"Nobody wants to spend that much money, because everyone's applying to grad school," she says. But despite money worries, the 22-year-old senior plans to drive to Miami with five friends this year.
"It's the last year I have to spend with my friends," she explains.
Other locations, like Daytona, will pack in upward of 400,000 people over the spring break season, Ms. Fina says.
"It's almost a religion that people have to get out of the winter environment and recharge," says Michael Marsden, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Northern Michigan University and former professor of pop culture at Bowling Green University.
"The reason why people flock to the sun and the sand is the same reason our forefathers worshiped the sun -- because they were afraid it wouldn't come back again," says Mr. Marsden. "The farther north you go, the more important spring break becomes."
For 19-year-old Nick Low, a junior at the UMCP, rest and relaxation are a top priority as he heads to Disney World and then to Daytona for his first spring break getaway.
"I've heard everyone else's spring break stories, and mine has always been, 'I went home,' " Mr. Low says. "This year I want to see what it's all about and maybe bring back some stories of my own."
Many spring break stories have their genesis off the beach.
Rick's and Dirty Harry's Entertainment Complex in Key West, Fla., typifies the night-life scene offered in many spring break towns.
This 1,000-person-capacity club features a karaoke bar, a dance club, a rock 'n' roll bar and an outside street bar that stays open until 4 a.m., according to general manager Michael Tierney.
"It's a fun time of year," says Mr. Tierney. "A lot of kids come down here to blow off some steam."
Live bands, best hunk contests and non-alcoholic beer chug contests are just some of the promotions the bar runs for party-hungry college students. According to Mr. Tierney, the bar usually confiscates anywhere from 1,500 to 2,500 fake I.D.s during the month and turns them over to the police.
"Our job is to make sure these kids have a good time, they drink responsibly and no one underage gets in to drink," Mr. Tierney says.
Despite the crowds, strict police enforcement in recent years has put a lid on some of the frenzied partying and injuries that plagued many spring break sites in the '80s.
"Our motto is, 'If you can function during the year, you can function down here,' " says Panama City Beach police chief Lee Sullivan.
"Ninety-eight percent of [the students] come down expecting to have a good time without any problems," says Mr. Sullivan. "For 2 percent it is their destiny to go to jail, and we will accommodate them."
According to Mr. Sullivan, there are 120 police on the Panama City force to handle the estimated 500,000 revelers descending on the beach this season. Judging from spring breaks in the past, Mr. Sullivan isn't expecting too many problems this year.
"Young people get a bad rap. They've got their problems and pressures, and they come here to relax," he says. "We treat them well and they respond to that."
Mr. Sullivan is the first to admit, though, that college students find some of the most original ways to break the law.
One year he was driving down the road behind a pickup truck with two people in the back when he noticed water sloshing down the sides. After pulling them over, he discovered they had put a liner in the back, filled it with water and made themselves a mobile pool.
"They were doing a few beers while floating down the road," he says, laughing at the memory. "I was impressed. They're probably our future rocket scientists."