Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach once ruled as huge spring break destinations that competed for college students from the 1960s to the 1980s.
Contrary to today’s more sedate vibe, the scene back then had young adults flocking here in droves, participating in wild wet T-shirt contests and “gross out” competitions, even performing belly-flops into hotel pools from their balconies.
The story of the resort-town rivalry is the focus of a new documentary, “Spring Broke,” which is set to air 9 p.m. March 25 on Showtime. Narrated by celebrity interviewer Robin Leach, known for “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous,” the 78-minute film is a nostalgic look at how the two spots exploded as college party meccas — and then crashed.
We have a generation that is so interested in what had happened in the ’80s and ’90s and everything surrounding that music,” said Robert Friedman, executive producer of the documentary and a former executive at MTV. “The story of how this came down, it was such an interesting business story and a lifestyle story. In some ways, it was as much a coming-of-age story as it was about Daytona and Fort Lauderdale.”
Produced by New York-based Bungalow Media + Entertainment, the documentary features notable locals like former Fort Lauderdale mayors Robert Dressler and Robert Cox, and Tim Schiavone, owner of Fort Lauderdale’s World Famous Parrot, then known as Parrot Lounge. Before joining the Sun Sentinel, business reporter Ron Hurtibise was an associate producer on the project and was interviewed as a former spring breaker from Daytona Beach.
Viewers may be surprised to learn how Fort Lauderdale became a springtime getaway spot.
The documentary opens explaining that Fort Lauderdale was the setting for an annual college swim forum in the 1930s. During World War II, college students looking for an escape began flocking to Fort Lauderdale’s shores.
But the release of the 1960 beach movie, “Where the Boys Are,” took the annual college rite of spring to another level. The movie followed a group of girlfriends as they looked for love and fun in Fort Lauderdale with other college students.
“That put Fort Lauderdale on the map as the place to go for spring break,” recalled Schiavone in the documentary.
Black-and-white news footage shows spring breakers packing into hotel and motel balconies and crowding the beaches. About 50,000 college students invaded Fort Lauderdale during the spring after the movie’s release, according to the documentary.
“I had never seen so many girls in my life,” Schiavone said.
As a sea of students spilled over State Road A1A, off Las Olas Boulevard, revelry ensued, followed by increased police activity.
“One kid climbed up a lamppost, and the police got excited,” recalled former Fort Lauderdale Mayor Robert Dressler in the documentary. “It was a conservative town at the time.”
Business owners up north in sleepy Daytona Beach started taking notice and wanted in on the spring break business, and the city began advertising to the college set.
One tactic involved a Daytona Beach hotelier dropping ping-pong balls along Fort Lauderdale’s shore with a message meant to woo students away for the following year’s vacation: “Get on the ball and to Daytona Beach.”
By the mid-1980s, Fort Lauderdale officials and residents grew tired of what they considered to be spring break debauchery — trashed hotels, beach brawls and heavy drinking. In 1985, there were about 350,000 spring break visitors, a record crowd at the time.
“It was huge. It was unmanageable,” said Dressler.
Overrun with students, Fort Lauderdale yanked its welcome mat from the college tourism business. Cox, the former Fort Lauderdale mayor, appeared on national television along with then-Daytona Beach Mayor Larry Kelly to encourage college vacationers to head up there instead.
Spring break traffic shifted from Fort Lauderdale to Daytona Beach. Cigarette companies and beer brands as well as MTV, with its giant inflatable logo, followed the youth migration there. College students sought out Daytona Beach for a chance to appear on the popular music cable network.
“[MTV] went down there, we created something that had not been created in the past,” said Friedman, who also appears in the piece.
In 1989, there were about 400,000 spring breakers in Daytona Beach. And just like in Fort Lauderdale, beach brawls, trashed hotels, balcony jumpers and bad press followed.
City officials and police there cracked down on the heavy spring break partying. In 1993, Daytona Beach officials cut their marketing budget and ties with MTV, according to the documentary.
The party was over. MTV moved on to other spring break hot spots such as Panama City Beach.
In the years since, both Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach have promoted their beaches as more family friendly destinations.
“Spring break was a wild ride, and we are happy it has moved on to other destinations,” said Nicki E. Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Saying good-bye to 400,000 college students converging on our shores was the best move we ever made.”
Lori Campbell Baker, director of public relations for the Daytona Beach Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the city hasn’t advertised toward college students since the early 1990s.
It even rebranded the spring vacation, calling it “spring family beach break.”
These days, “it’s a great combo of families, however you define yours, couples and multi-generational groups,” she said. “[It] is a popular event here in Daytona Beach.”
Fort Lauderdale took the same marketing approach.
“Our spring visitor is now affluent families and top meetings and conferences,” said Grossman. “And, while we still receive some student visitors, they are likely to be staying at a good hotel, paying for it on their platinum card and enjoying our chic nightlife, as well as quality beach time.”
That was the scene the first week of March in Fort Lauderdale.
Across from Bahia Mar Fort Lauderdale Beach, throngs of students from Ohio basked under the bright blue skies, sitting under giant sailing flags representing their fraternities and sororities.
Standing in the crowd were 22-year-old twins Danielle and Katie Holley, from Ohio University. This was their first spring break in Fort Lauderdale.
They heard about Fort Lauderdale as a spring destination from fellow Ohio college students who come year after year.
“It’s known in Ohio to come here for spring break,” said Danielle Holley. “It’s been really fun. I love it.”
Proving that, although quieter these days, Fort Lauderdale beach is still where some of the boys and girls are.
This was the place to go on spring break.
The documentary, " Spring Broke," looks at the history of spring break in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach. The documentary airs at 9 pm March 25.