Where the Boys Are

What happens when a fifty-year old man decides to go off to Spring Break?  It sounds a lot like a bad movie starring Adam Sandler, I know, but when the opportunity to spend ten days in sunny Key West among hordes of attractive college students in pursuit of cocktails and hook ups presented itself, I just had to say yes.

Ah, Spring Break, I remember thee well.  The nineteen hour drive. Seventy five cent beers.  Sunburn. Where I stayed I cannot recall, but rest assured it was somewhere on the infamous Ft. Lauderdale strip, that mile-and-a-half long stretch of bars and cheap hotels that paralleled the beach.  The armpit of Ft. Lauderdale was what some local officials called it.  Nirvana was more like it, if you had asked the more than a quarter million of us college kids who descended upon the place back in the spring of 1982.

Ironically, nobody goes to “Ft. Liquordale” anymore for Spring Break.  The city fathers ran the students out in the mid-80s.  But for a good thirty years or so, it was Mecca.  And, while the city didn’t actually invent the celebration of springtime awakening and fertility – blame that debauchery on the ancient Greeks and Romans – it did conspire to create the modern Spring Break model.  Back in 1936, a swimming coach at Colgate University in upstate New York brought his boys to Fort Lauderdale in the spring to train in the first Olympic-size swimming pool in Florida, thereby getting a jump on the competition. Two years later, the city hosted a college swimming competition.  By 1953, it is estimated that about 15,000 college students were traveling to Ft. Lauderdale each spring.

The gathering eventually attracted the attention of magazines such as Look and Life.  In 1960, Michigan State English professor Glendon Swarthout wrote a coming of age novel about four college coeds heading to Ft. Lauderdale in search of sun and fun during their spring break.  It was called Where the Boys Are and MGM turned it into a movie that premiered in December of that same year. Three months later, more than 50,000 students made the journey to Ft. Lauderdale.  The floodgates had opened.

By the time I got there in ‘82, it was a free for all of outrageous behavior and non-stop drinking. Guys used hotel railings for diving into pools.  Girls on balconies flashed passers by.  Then there was the nightly parade down the strip where one nonchalantly stepped over passed out bodies, vomit, and broken bottles.  Food?  All I remember were barbeque Fritos and Chips Ahoy cookies.

Everyone seemed to spend the mornings in bed recovering or out on the beach frying.  Afternoons were dedicated to drinking in notorious bars like the Elbo Room and the Candy Store.  Specialty adult-themed drinks were all the rage:  Screaming Orgasms, Skip and Go Naked, and Sex on the Beach were ones I seem to recall.

Mostly, though, I remember The Button, a cavernous barn of a bar where college kids drank beer for free after paying a nominal admission fee.  Mixed drinks were cheap.  Shots of Sambuca were plentiful.  It was a lusty environment, one made even more so by body heat radiating from sunburned bodies and the lewd drinking games such as the wet willy and the erotic banana-eating contests that the bar was known for.  Every now and then the bouncers would spray the crowd with water to cool everyone down.  Even that couldn’t stop all the bumping and grinding.  Oh, it was quite a place.

By the mid-1980’s, Ft. Lauderdale had started cracking down hard on the revelers and that’s the same time MTV arrived on the scene with its Spring Break specials in places like Daytona Beach and Cancun.  The crowds followed, and Ft. Lauderdale happily relinquished its title as the Spring Break capital.

Spring Break today is big business and locales like Panama City, Florida, and South Padre Island, Texas, actively court student visitors.  A number of travel companies cater specifically to Spring Break travel in more exotic locations like Cancun, Cabo, the Bahamas, and the Dominican Republic.  MTV last year began promoting Las Vegas as a Spring Break destination.  There are special Spring Break websites and even cruises catering to more diverse Spring Break desires.

So what did I encounter during my Spring Break in Key West? The bars and beaches were full, but not packed. Students were drinking in public, but so too were the locals.  There wasn’t much wonton nakedness or public drunkenness, at least not from the students.  For such a permissive place, the city felt pretty tame by Spring Break standards.

On the other hand, I did get sunburned and I somehow managed to find all the two-for- one drink specials. I even stumbled upon a convenience store selling beer and wigs, just what every Spring Breaker needs, don’t you think? By day, I took photography classes and watched drag queens frolic poolside.  At night, I sipped White Russians in La Te Da and then fended off the erotic advances of Russian hustler boys in the Bourbon Street Pub.

Ah yes, Spring Break at age 50.  It wasn’t quite the same as it was thirty years ago, but you know what?  It just might make a good movie.  Of course, I’d cast Kevin Spacey rather than Adam Sandler.

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