April 7, 2019
When I was growing up, Spring Break was scheduled around Easter, but college students usually have their break early in the year.
The first time I took notice of Spring Break — beyond the Easter Break I enjoyed during my elementary school days — I was watching MTV, and I caught a glimpse of young coeds partying during concerts. That never really interested me because, back then, MTV was more about the music during most days and whenever I tuned it, I wanted to hear music — or watch Daria, when that was on.
What I never really noticed was how long MTV’s Spring Break tradition had been running or how the American tradition for college students had been going. It’s an interesting history, but not without its pitfalls.
What Is Spring Break?
Spring Break is a period during a school year when school isn’t in session for at least a week. Much like a Winter Break, which takes place around Christmas and New Year’s Day, Spring Break may be timed around a holiday; in this case, it’s Easter Sunday. However, depending on the college or university, Spring Break may come earlier in the calendar year. Many postsecondary school spring breaks take place in early and mid-March, although some colleges may have spring breaks that begin in early and mid-April.
During spring breaks, college students like to let loose. There have been many, many instances of heavy drinking and property damage. While Spring Break is profitable for sponsors, hotels, and other local businesses, the partygoers have, in some instances, worn out their welcome with local residents.
When Was Spring Break Created?
Some people tie the “spiritual” origins of Spring Break to the Classical period when the ancient Greeks and Romans held yearly celebrations during the spring that involved young people of “mate-able” age. During these celebrations, participants would honor the god of wine and fertility; this was Dionysus for the Greeks and Bacchus for the Romans (“The Classical Period”).
That considered, the real origins for Spring Break in the United States can be traced to the 1930s.
The story begins in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. In 1926, the state experienced heavy damage from the “Great Miami Hurricane”; the costs were estimated to be $100 million, which would be worth $1.31 billion in 2015 USD. In order to attract visitors, Fort Lauderdale decided to build the first Olympic-size municipal pool in the state. The Casino pool, which measured 50 meters by 20 meters, eventually attracted collegiate swimmers, thus starting a tradition that grew beyond the student-athlete crowd.
First, word spread among wealthy students whose families lived in West Palm Beach and Miami (“The Early Years”). Eventually, word spread to a swimming coach at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York; in 1934, that coach decided to take his team to practice in Fort Lauderdale’s Casino Pool (Various). Word eventually spread to other collegiate swimming coaches, and the gatherings culminated in the College Coaches’ Swim Forum, which was first held in 1938 and included over 1,500 collegiate athletes (Dugan).
Of course, the players didn’t spend all their time in Florida practicing; during their free time, they engaged in partying. This, too, would be copied by college students around the country, particularly in the 1940s and 1950s. Thus, Fort Lauderdale and other locations with welcoming beaches would become destinations for college students on their spring vacations (Roos).
When Did Spring Break First Become Popular?
In the late 1950s, the annual spring break tradition in Fort Lauderdale began attracting the attention of publications like Time Magazine, Look Magazine, and Life Magazine. One coed who was interviewed by one of these publications said that she had come to Fort Lauderdale because “this is where the boys are” (“The 1960’s).
It seems like that statement informed the title of Glendon Swarthout’s 1960 novel, a tale of four female college students who trekked to Fort Lauderdale during their spring break. Swarthout, an English professor at Michigan State University, wrote the novel after he witnessed the goings-on of students who escaped their collegiate settings to celebrate Spring Break in Fort Lauderdale, Florida in 1958. Swarthout decided to go to Florida after overhearing some of his students talk about their plans for the spring holiday (Kennedy).
That novel was picked up by MGM, which filmed much of the movie in the city that same year. The book was originally going to be titled “Unholy Spring,” but Hollywood executives convinced him to change the title to “Where the Boys Are.” The firm had its premiere at the Gateway Theatre on Sunrise Boulevard in Ft. Lauderdale on December 21, 1960 (“The 1960’s”). It was marketed with the words “spring vacation” and a song by Connie Francis (Kennedy).
The movie was such a success that it inspired even more college students to make the trip to Florida during their spring breaks starting in March 1961. That month, over 50,000 students landed in Fort Lauderdale — up from the yearly total of 20,000 — although the city then only had 80,000 residents. (“The 1960’s”).
When Did MTV Catch onto Spring Break?
MTV first broadcast on August 2, 1981, but it took the network less than five years to start its annual Spring Break Broadcast. In March 1986, MTV correspondents headed to Daytona Beach and settled at the Plaza Hotel. During the week-long trip, MTV would broadcast 8 hours of footage a day, which not only captured reveling students but performances by popular artists and bands of the day (“The 1970’s”).
What Are Some Popular Destinations for Students During Spring Break?
As the tradition of spring break began in Fort Lauderdale, the city emerged as the go-to destination for college students who wanted to get a little sun and have a little fun during their spring vacations. But by the 1980s, tourism in the city dropped.
By 1985, around 350,000 college students would head to Fort Lauderdale during their Spring Break. In response to the increased traffic, the city passed tougher public drinking laws and the city’s mayor, Robert Dressler, went on Good Morning America to discourage college students from heading to his city to party (Dugan). Soon afterward, other Florida beach towns like Daytona Beach started picking up the overflow of students (Roos).
While MTV’s Spring Break broadcast may have raised awareness of the tradition and helped to change the marketing for products, it had an adverse effect on Daytona. Since young people were aware that they might be on camera if they were in the vicinity of MTV’s production, even more students flocked to the city. This led to an increased demand for hotel rooms and thus an increase in prices. Panama City Beach emerged as a go-to destination in the 1990s as businesses welcomed the vacationing students (“The 1990’s”).
Panama City reached its height as a Spring Break destination in this decade. From 2010 to 2016, the beach saw an estimated 300,000 students. However, this changed after a spate of shootings and gang rape in 2015. After those incidents, the city passed new ordinances to curb heavy drinking (Various).
Other spring break destinations that gained in popularity included South Padre Island in Texas, Palm Springs in California, and Acapulco in Mexico, and the Bahamas (“The 1990’s). South Padre became a destination after the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in the 1980s and more Florida cities began cracking down on underage drinking (Sedahi). Cancún was especially rebuilt to accommodate tourists.
Does Spring Break Always Entail Partying in Beach Towns?
Of course not.
Another spring break tradition that sprang up in the 1980s was among black college students. In Atlanta, Georgia, some students decided to organize a picnic for students who didn’t have the luxury of leaving campus during spring break. Inspired by two Rick James disco hits, “Le Freak” and Superfreak,” the students decided to name the picnic Freaknik. This made Atlanta a spring-break destination for black college and high school students.
The tradition Freaknik reached its height in 1996. By then, hundreds of thousands of young black students would cruise into Atlanta for the celebration, which became “a multi-day street party.” However, the practice started to fizzle out around 1999, when the mayor cracked down on cruising.
A third tradition that developed in the late 1980s was an “Alternative Spring Break.” One of the first organizations to start this practice was Habitat for Humanity, in 1989. To date, over 260,000 students have taken part in the volunteer organization’s Collegiate Challenge. According to a Habitat spokesperson, 7,000 students took the challenge in 2018 (Roos).
Other organizations and colleges hold their own Alternative Spring Breaks. During these weeks, college students are encouraged to help in certain communities (“Alternative Spring Break”).
Additionally, spring vacations can involve the family — one that is looking for wholesome entertainment (ahem). Who says that college students get to have all the fun?
Canal de Musica Jose Manuel. “Connie Francis – Where the boys are.” YouTube. 25 Mar 2014. Video. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDcvmrHV9Jc>.
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