Most Fort Lauderdale people, I reckon, have had this experience at least once. You’re somewhere far from Fort Lauderdale, and you mention to someone – we’ll put them at 45 or older – where you’re from. A certain look overtakes them; they want to share.
If kids are around, you might have to wait a minute, because it’s not that kind of sharing. Eventually you’ll get a story about their 19-year-old self making bad life choices at the Candy Store or Penrod’s. If you were born in Fort Lauderdale, the hospital where you came into the world might be invoked as a place that’s also handy with stitches or a stomach pump.
It’s an odd thing to be known for, spring break. Odder still when the reality of the city today looks so different from the ’60s pictures of college-sweater-clad students climbing streetlight posts or the ’80s photos featuring massive hair and decidedly smaller bikinis. And yet to some degree, the perception seems to stick. Several years ago when late-night talk show host Stephen Colbert did some jokes about Fort Lauderdale, his setup involved this being the spring break party town. It’s like a joke about New York that centers on seeing a dirty movie in Times Square.
It seems odd because we know the truth. We’ve watched our city’s main economic driver, tourism, change and change again. Those former spring-breakers might now come back – but now they bring the kids and grandkids, and they don’t pack 10 to a room at a place within walking distance of the wet T-shirt contest. They’ve grown up, and so have we.
So it was a bit of a surprise last year when a few videos started doing the rounds. College students drinking and, in some cases, fighting on Fort Lauderdale Beach. Epic beach trash cleanups to combat the previous night’s festivities. Spring break in Fort Lauderdale (Whoooooo!) only, hang on, in 2017?
The picture, as described in Jess Swanson’s fascinating story, is a bit more complicated than “Spring break is back.” The young people who come now want to stay in nice hotels. They have money to spend. If the studies and surveys are to be believed, they drink a fair bit less than their forebears did in 1985. Basically, they come here not because Fort Lauderdale is the place for spring break; instead, they show up for, well, the same reason everybody else does. Today’s college students on vacation don’t dominate the crowd as much as they blend in with it.
And yet yeah, sometimes youthful antics land on YouTube. Some tourists annoy us by driving 20 mph in the left lane on Federal, others annoy us by forgetting to bin the Solo cups after an evening of al fresco oceanside refreshment.
It might provide for moments of irritation, but let’s not confuse it with the old days. Folks up north may still hear “Fort Lauderdale” and think “spring break,” but we know we take in the college kids because we now take in, well, pretty much everybody.