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Spring break in Florida: Here come the tourists

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 14, 2014 at 10:46 am •  Published: March 14, 2014
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PENSACOLA, Fla. (AP) — From portable beach jails to extra emergency medical staffing, Florida is coping with the annual — but not altogether unwelcome — invasion otherwise known as spring break.

But if your impression of spring break from MTV and "Girls Gone Wild" is of an unscripted, chaotic mess of beaches, booze and bikinis, you're only partly right. The state's Gulf Coast does experience an onslaught of thousands of teenagers and college students every spring. But the fact is, the bulk of spring tourism to the state is families, said Paul Phipps, spokesman for Visit Florida.

And this year, Phipps expects March and April to break Florida tourism records because of pent-up demand created by unusually cold and snowy weather in much of the country.

"January and February numbers were up over last year and we expect that trend to continue," he said.

More than half the state's spring break visitors will head to theme parks and other attractions in Orlando. This is the third-most popular time of year to visit Orlando after peak summer and Christmastime, according to Mark Jaronski, spokesman for Visit Orlando. Advance hotel bookings for March and April already indicate a record spring season for the area, he said, despite the lack of discounts this time of year.

In Panama City Beach, officials are preparing for a different demographic: thousands of teens and 20-somethings. Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, expects 250,000 to 300,000 college students during March.

The city brings in dozens of additional law enforcement staffers from outside agencies to handle the crowds, along with a mobile booking unit with a juvenile detention area. Panama City Beach Police Chief Drew Whitman, who has 20 years of experience with spring break law enforcement, said the mobile unit allows officers to enforce underage drinking and other violations without making the two-hour round trip from beach to county jail.

The spike in law enforcement activity following a slow winter has already started. Between March 7 and March 12, Whitman said Panama City Beach made 211 arrests, most for underage drinking, public intoxication, DUI and other spring break-related offenses, including one person charged with sexual assault, he said.

And despite precautions and enforcement, tragedies happen. Rice University student Reny Jose went missing early March 3 after witnesses said he took LSD the previous evening at a beach house. Officials have been searching for him since. Another spring breaker died March 9 in a DUI-related crash.

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