Thirty-nine years ago this month, I met the woman who would become my best friend and life partner. It was 1983, and I met this beautiful freshman on the streets of Fort Lauderdale during Spring Break in front of the infamous Bahama Momma hotel. We married four years later after we both graduated. Some say it was fate however, little did we know, but the wheels of our fateful rendezvous were put in place about two decades before by a young college professor long before I was born.
Spring Break Started With a Movie and a Song
MSU’s winter term ended in 1961. The students had already endured a brutal winter. Nonetheless, MSU students were buying 45s or crowding around jukeboxes to hear Connie Francis sing her dreamy, romantic song “Where the Boys Are,” which reached number one on the Billboard charts that year.
The film of the same name was released in March 1961, just before spring break started at MSU. The song was featured in a movie of the same name that had just been released and was a hit at the theaters.
The film’s plot revolved around four college girls who drove down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on spring break in search of love and romance. This is where they’re going to find their “boys.” The title song played over the opening credits as scenes of college students heading south flashed onscreen.
As it turns out, Connie Francis herself was on campus at MSU that same year. She performed at Jenison Fieldhouse on March 19, 1961, with Johnny Mathis and Jerry Vale as part of an event called “A Merry Evening.”
Spring Trips to Florida Were Once the Purview of College Swimmers and Golfers on Spring Training
Spring break has its roots in college sports. In the 1920s and 1930s, many schools on the East Coast held their first mid-winter breaks. Later, colleges in southern locales began having their spring breaks to escape cold weather.
In 1936, Colgate University students traveled by train to Fort Lauderdale for a vacation with other schools. They discovered that Fort Lauderdale had hundreds of hotels and motels. Soon after, other schools followed Colgate’s example and sent their students there. This was the first recorded spring break trip to that location.
The earliest record of college students taking spring road trips was 1939 when University of Wisconsin swimmers went to Fort Lauderdale for training. In 1949, Iowa State College’s golf team attended a tournament in Miami. And in 1956, Purdue University’s swim team took its first trip to Florida. Then came Connie Francis’ song “Where the Boys Are,” and college campuses across the north knew where they were going for a week in March.
Spring Break Fever Across The United States
It was not just MSU students who were struck by this film. Students across America flocked to see it. Soon after its release, many college students began heading to Fort Lauderdale — or anywhere else they could find warm weather and few parental restrictions — for their spring break celebrations.
That spring, 2,500 Michigan State University students made their way south for spring vacation. They booked out every available hotel room in Ft. Lauderdale and Daytona Beach. One newspaper reported, “Thousands of college girls are pouring into Daytona Beach.
In 1962, University President John A. Hannah announced “Spring Break” as a formal holiday at MSU. Since then, students have traveled to beach resorts around Florida or southern Texas during Spring Break.
The Cultural Rite of Passage of Spring Break Started With a Book
In the spring of 1958, Dr. Glendon Swarthout was teaching an honors class at MSU when he overheard one of his students talking about traveling south during spring break. The concept intrigued him, so he learned that the destination for most MSU students was Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He asked if he could join them, and the students were more than happy to have a faculty adviser along for the trip.
Swarthout’s idea was to write about the experience and submit it to a magazine. “It occurred to me that this would make an excellent novel,” he recalled in an interview with Time magazine’s Joe Klein in 1980. “I could at the same time write a kind of profile of that particular generation-their aspiration, their hopes, their fears, and so on.”
From that nugget of inspiration came That Summer in Paris (1963), which recounts a fictionalized version of Swarthout’s first encounter with Paris. And from his time with MSU students sprang Where the Boys Are (1960), which became one of his most successful works.
Swarthout wrote a 40-page piece for The New Yorker magazine titled “Where the Boys Are.” It came out in January 1960, and he thought that would be that. But then he got a call from a Hollywood producer who wanted to make a movie based on the article.
Spring Break In Florida Grows Over the Next 25 Years
Over the next two decades, the number of spring breakers in Fort Lauderdale increased from 15,000 to almost 370,000. The overall number of spring breakers—including those in the alternative volunteer programs—is projected to reach well over a million.
Spring break is a busy time for travel agents and destinations that cater to college students. Many communities and resorts rely on their business to remain profitable during their slow season. The economic impact of spring break tourism is so significant that many popular destinations have adopted policies or built infrastructure specifically to accommodate the needs of this lucrative market. For example, Panama City Beach approved a controversial ordinance in 2008 that allowed bars along its strip to remain open until 4:00 a.m., as opposed to 2:00 a.m., to welcome more college-age customers.
The Rise and Fall of Ft. Lauderdale and The Concept of Spring Break
In 1959, Fort Lauderdale had about 36,000 permanent residents. During ten days each year (usually at the beginning of March), the city swelled with 250,000 college students on break.
The city tried to ban alcohol on its beaches, but the courts struck it down. It imposed a curfew that was also struck down. A couple of years later, it tried again and passed an ordinance against public drinking that held up to legal scrutiny.
By the end of the decade, 200,000 college students came annually to party and drink into oblivion. The idea that spring break had become a “rite of passage for college students” grew during this time. By 1985, 60 percent of all 18-21-year-olds made spring break trips to Fort Lauderdale or another destination.
Fort Lauderdale has since been replaced by destinations such as Cancun, Key West, Texas’s South Padre Island, and Daytona Beach as top spots for college students during their week off from classes and studies. However, spring breakers found that Panama City has access to some of the best beaches in Florida. The city offers 27 miles of sandy beaches along the Gulf of Mexico that were ranked as one of the country’s top 10 beaches in 2013.
The Last Two Years May Have Changed Spring Break Forever
However, with two years of a Covid-19 pandemic and the high cost of education, some students are not heading south for the traditional spring break.
“Budgets and Covid are playing huge factors,” said a senior at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “It’s also difficult to plan something when you don’t know what will happen next week.”
Even though spring break may look a little different this year due to COVID-19, there are still plenty of ways students can enjoy their time off without compromising their health. Students turn to domestic destinations like Florida and book last-minute trips to avoid COVID-19 outbreaks abroad. Some students choose not to travel at all but instead take advantage of their extra free time by pursuing new hobbies or spending time with friends at a northern Michigan cottage or cabin.
Own A Bit of Spring Break Nostalgia
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Top US Spring Break Locations in 2022
South Padre Island, Texas
On the Gulf of Mexico, South Padre Island is the southernmost point of Texas. Every day, prominent entertainers will perform at some of the craziest beach parties in the world. Then, at night, explore the island’s waterfront nightclubs and pool parties you’ve only imagined.
This island may be small, but trust us when we say you’ve never seen a party like this before. Everything is more extensive in Texas, especially during South Padre Island Spring Break.
Miami Beach, Florida
It is possible that the very first spring breakers arrived here looking for a good time. Since the 1920s, Miami Beach has been regarded as a premier beach resort. Spring breakers on college spring break excursions typically stay in and around South Beach, but the chance to enjoy the nightlife goes well beyond South Beach into a city with fantastic nightlife.
South Beach is home to the famous (Google Jackie Gleason, this guy was excellent) and is considered a high-end spring break destination for college students. In addition, Miami is a cultural, historical, and architectural hotspot with its art deco style.
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida
On the Atlantic coast, Fort Lauderdale is the beach that started it all. This busy coastal city lies in South Florida, where warm weather is nearly assured in March. Furthermore, its proximity to Miami allows for a fast trip to the famed South Beach. As a result, Fort Lauderdale is a Spring Breaker’s ideal destination, with miles of beautiful beaches, hundreds of students from all over the country, and some of Florida’s finest nightlife.
Daytona Beach, Florida
Daytona Beach, which hugs the Atlantic shore, is located in Central Florida, where mild weather is practically guaranteed in March. With 23 miles of stunning beaches, hundreds of students from throughout the country, and some of the most fabulous nightlife in Florida. Daytona Beach was the original home of spring break. Its proximity to Disney World makes it an intriguing option for a day excursion away from the beach.
Panama City Beach, Florida
This resort area, located in northern Florida along the Gulf Coast, allows students from all over the country to get in their cars and drive to their own paradise. With its 27 miles of gorgeous beaches and crystal blue sea, Panama City Beach is where plentiful sunshine, convenience, and enjoyment converge. Panama City Beach is home to the country’s largest beachfront nightclubs, which are open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Destin Florida Spring Break is both classy and vibrant at the same time. Destin, Florida, offers the best of both worlds, from white sandy beaches ideal for a mid-semester vacation to a lively promenade lined with endless bars. Destin, Florida’s Panhandle, is approximately an hour’s drive from Panama City Beach and is easily accessible from hundreds of campuses around the country.
Key West, Florida
Located at the extreme end of A1A in the beautiful Florida Keys, this island beacons you for a week of fun in the sun. While many college students would choose to visit the relatively accessible Daytona Beach, Ft. Lauderdale, or Miami Beach, Key West is like stepping into another universe. It’s an island with culture and feeling like no other, and everything makes you feel like you’re in the Caribbean, which you are.
Driving to Key West is about a 36-hour jaunt from many midwest campuses. Or you can fly to Miami and rent a car for a slow roll to Key West. There are many stops across the bridges of A1A from Miami to Key West worth seeing, such as Islamorada for snorkeling, check out a beach that is one of the most beautiful in the world at Bahia Honda State Park, and try to find the No-Name Bar and avoid the famous little Key Deer on Big Pine Key.