FORT LAUDERDALE BEACH, FLA. — To exam-weary college students in mid-March, this mile-and-a-half stretch of sand running parallel to Route A1A was once the Promised Land.
From the 1950s through the mid-1980s, the name Fort Lauderdale was synonymous with rowdy college kids packing 10 friends into cheap motel rooms and conducting a nonstop month-long party on the beach.
Today, the city immortalized by Connie Francis in the 1960s movie "Where The Boys Are," and more recently by MTV, is demonstrating to other besieged Florida seaside communities that there can be tranquility during spring break and economic life afterward.
The city is still attracting pasty outsiders to its beaches in search of the bronze look. But many of them today are businesspeople in suits and tourists from Germany. Students who do journey here are more sedate and upscale: Those who want to sit in outdoor cafes rather than turn southern Florida into a giant toga party.
Thus other cities are now looking at Fort Lauderdale to see how it transformed its image - and whether there are any lessons for them.
With an estimated 500,000 collegians headed for Panama City Beach, and 300,000 others on their way to Daytona Beach, officials here profess to be happy relinquishing their status as the spring-break capital of the world.
"Fort Lauderdale had it for 30 years. It took us 10 years of marketing to overcome it," says Nicki Grossman, of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.
In the late 1980s, the city funded a $26 million renovation of its beachfront. Then came $150 million in private sector improvements. In addition the county built a convention center that has more than compensated for the loss of vacationing students. "Last year we had a record number of tourists, filling hotels," says Ms. Grossman.
Students still come to Fort Lauderdale during spring break, but only a manageable 12,000 to 15,000 of them. And they are a higher caliber of students. "These are students who aren't coming to Fort Lauderdale for what we were, but for what we are," Grossman says. "They are getting an upscale spring break."
And that's not all. This week with icy temperatures in northern Florida, Fort Lauderdale near the southern tip of the state had some of the warmest weather in the country.
"A lot of people usually go to Panama City, but if you make the effort to come south you get the primo rays," says Aaron Rodriguez, a freshman at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn.
He says he doesn't mind coming to the more sedate Fort Lauderdale where the crowds of teens at poolside parties have been replaced by outdoor cafes, restaurants, and trendy shops.
"I think this is nicer," says Jesse Duhame, front-desk clerk at the Silver Seas Resort and a longtime resident. "The students can come down and enjoy the beach and clubs, but you don't have the rowdiness where they destroyed everything." At the height of its popularity in 1985, 380,000 spring-breakers came here.
Back then, Fort Lauderdale Beach was known as "The Strip." It boasted an assortment of cheap motels, bars, pizza joints, and T-shirt shops. Not a world-class tourist destination, but all a rowdy college kid could want.
Fort Lauderdale Police Officer Dave McGrath remembers how it was. "They used to destroy hotels, throw things off balconies, have fire-hose fights in the halls. They acted like animals," he says.
But it wasn't easy to make the decision to end it all because those same college kids were spending about $110 million a year in Fort Lauderdale. For some local businesses, the March mayhem was all that kept them afloat.
Nonetheless, the city took the plunge in 1986, instructing the police to strictly enforce laws banning the consumption of alcohol on the beach. The students got the message.
Almost immediately Daytona Beach - 240 miles to the north - emerged as the new spring-break capital. "We took over where Fort Lauderdale left off," says Tricia Savard, a spokeswoman for Daytona Beach. "Our numbers topped off at over 500,000 students. At that point the community said, 'whoa.' "
A half-million students can eat a lot of pizzas. But it wasn't the heavy consumption of anchovies that had Daytona Beach residents worried. The annual event was getting out of hand just as it had in Fort Lauderdale, so officials decided to tone it down, limiting the more profligate aspects of spring break such as beer guzzling races and wet T-shirt contests. They also organized a career fair to enable any vacationing scholars who were so inclined, to use a portion of their beach time to job hunt.
Recruiters at the fair are said to have 500 open jobs, presenting the prospect that a significant number of students will leave Dayton with both a good tan and a solid job offer.
It is all aimed at giving students positive alternatives to round-the-clock partying. "It has made [spring break] a lot more acceptable to the community," Ms. Savard says.
Meanwhile, across the state in Panama City Beach, gleeful businessmen are gearing up for the more than a half-million students attracted by the prospect of participating in the sorts of activities that were banned in Fort Lauderdale and Daytona. And MTV will be there.
"We love it," says John Geesling III, owner of the Bikini Beach Motel and director of the chamber of commerce. "Spring break is good for Panama City. The advertising that MTV has brought to us, you can't buy that," he says.
Dan Stark of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau says the benefits to local businesses far outweigh any negatives. "The perception that kids are wild in the streets, that isn't the case," he says. "The majority of the kids here are well behaved."