Lauderdale is no longer where the boys are

February 11, 1992|By Edwin McDowell | Edwin McDowell,New York Times

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- NEXT MONTH, hundreds of thousands of college students will besiege sandy shores and snowy slopes around the country to celebrate the rites of spring. But just a handful will head for this beach resort, which for 35 years was the spring-break capital of the world.

That is just fine with local officials and most business owners, who say they could not be happier, even though it means the loss of $140 million generated by spring break.

"You can get so addicted to that kind of money that you never ask at what cost," said Nicki E. Grossman, a commissioner of Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale.

But the city was finally forced to ask that question when a record 350,000 young people streamed in in 1985. They disrupted traffic and overburdened the legal system, with mostly petty crimes, to such a degree that newspapers and television stations around the country took unfavorable notice. Needless to say, the situation also frayed this community's collective nerves.

"Fort Lauderdale had gridlock, beachlock and kidlock," said Richard D. Weaver, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

When the six-week blitz ended in April, the police chief gave his officers T-shirts declaring, "We Survived Spring Break."

Only one-third of the crowd was college students, he said, the rest being "everything from high school students to bikers."

"That's when we decided we couldn't afford it any more," said Ms. Grossman, who is also chairman of the Broward County Tourism Development Council. "We pulled back the welcome mat on spring break, and since then we have gone after families and European visitors."

That decision proved costly to many hotels and shops that catered to the college crowd, but the gamble appears to be paying off.

Each week, 195 flights from Stockholm, Copenhagen, Amsterdam and Frankfurt land at the Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport, loaded with tourists who find it cheaper to vacation here than in Europe.

Foreigners now account for nearly 20 percent of Greater Fort Lauderdale's visitors, up from about 10 percent in 1985. Moreover, many of the visitors from overseas, as opposed to those who come from Canada and Mexico, vacation here in the summer, when most Americans seek a more temperate clime.

Last year, some 4.9 million visitors to the area spent $3.2 billion, compared with 3.3 million visitors in 1985 who spent $2.2 billion. That $1 billion difference narrows when the 1985 amount is adjusted to equal 1991 dollars, but even so, Fort Lauderdale is clearly ahead of where it was then. During that same period, spring-break visitors dwindled to 15,000 from 350,000.

Many students now spend spring break in places like the Gulf Coast of Texas, the Caribbean and in Cancun, Mexico. But the undisputed capital is Daytona Beach, Fla., more than 200 miles north of Fort Lauderdale.

"When Fort Lauderdale lowered the boom on spring break, we realized what a tremendous asset it could be to have the future leaders of America at our door," said Suzanne Smith, a vice president with the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce.

Last year some 400,000 students went to Daytona Beach for spring break.

In the last year, Fort Lauderdale has paid the way for 2,500 British travel agents and tour operators to come see for themselves that Fort Lauderdale no longer resembles the setting of the Glendon Swarthout novel "Where the Boys Are."

The book was made into a 1960 motion picture with Connie Francis, George Hamilton and Yvette Mimieux, giving Fort Lauderdale even wider exposure.

Swarthout and his wife, Kate, visited Fort Lauderdale last December, for a 50th wedding anniversary cruise to San Francisco via the Panama Canal.

"I hadn't been there since the mid-1960s," said Swarthout, who lives in Arizona. "It seemed a lot more sedate. The bubbles have gone out of it."

That judgment seems unlikely to disturb the city's leaders, who made a strong effort to distance Fort Lauderdale from spring break.

They ended their ads in college newspapers inviting students.

In 1986, 750 visitors during student break were charged with offenses largely related to drinking, and the next year about 2,000 were arrested. That tough new attitude gave rise to the slogan, "Come on vacation, leave on probation."

In 1991 and 1992, the city is spending $20 million to revitalize the beachfront's roads and sidewalks.

Not everyone is overjoyed at the change. "I did 50 percent of my annual gross income in that six-week period," said Roger Handevidt, the owner of the Orton Terrace, a 15-unit hotel three blocks from the beach. "Today you probably have more foreclosures than at any time in the 12 years I've been here."

While Handevidt found the students who stayed at his hotel "rowdy, but not necessarily destructive," he acknowledged that some hotels suffered from student vandalism. He also said the number of women students began declining sharply in the mid-1980s as the number of drunken male teen-agers increased.

At the Elbo Room, a popular beachfront bar that was featured in the movie "Where the Boys Are," business has also slipped since the old days. "There's been a gradual dwindling since 1985," said John Foose, its manager. "But we've kind of rolled with the changes -- from a wild and crazy bar to one that's kind of tame, with a lot of European customers."

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