Subdued Spring Break


Students from all over Canada wait outside their hotel for a charter bus to take them around to different clubs around during Spring Break in Panama City Beach.

DAVID MASSEY/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 1, 2005 at 12:35 a.m.
PANAMA CITY BEACH - The first wave of spring breakers trickled in this week, but still, snowbirds outnumbered students.
In its MTV-inspired 1990s heyday, this Gulfside city in the Panhandle teemed with spring breakers from mid-February until April, with bumper-to-bumper traffic clogging its main thoroughfares and students from across the country packing its nightclubs.
This week, the few students from the University of Florida and other campuses who spent their Spring Break here came to a city dominated by retirees and by the construction workers building dozens of new condos to house them. Residents said they weren't sure the new, calmer city was an improvement.
"Construction, condos and old people," said Dusty Mathis, 23, of Panama City Beach, as he watched a crane tear off the facade of an old motel on Front Beach Road. "That's all this place is anymore. It used to be slam-jam packed - it used to be off the hook."
Gene Antonio, 57, said he retired to this place in part because of the energy the constant influx of young people brought.
"I liked it better as a small town with mom-and-pop businesses," said Antonio, a retired English professor from a two-year college in Atlanta. "Now, it's just another big city in Florida. I like having young people around, too. They drive too fast and they drink too much, but that's what kids do."
Some of the change from bustling beach community to upscale retirement haven has been driven by real estate.
Dozens of new condominiums built to cater to the retirees and snowbirds that have been flocking to the Panhandle have replaced old hotels famous for Spring Break debauchery.
Soon, bulldozers will gut the Miracle Strip, a favorite local amusement park, and the venerable La Vela, a nightclub made famous by MTV's spring break. Condominiums will be built in their footsteps.
"Everything's closed," said Al Lamothe, 20, who attends Algonquin College in Ottawa and came to the city on a 30-hour bus trip for Canadian college students. "I remember seeing La Vela on MTV, and it's not anywhere near as cool as it looked on TV."
"We saw the wet T-shirt contest there and all, but it's not the same," said Anita Jonas, 19.
Some of the change stems from a calculated image cleanup. The city passed an ordinance a few years ago prohibiting the construction of sexually-oriented businesses along "tourist corridors," or major thoroughfares near the beach popular with out-of-town visitors, to make the beach district palatable to families, City Manager Richard Jackson said.
"The city ran off all the people," said Eryc Gill, 29, who does body piercing at Tracers tattoo shop on Front Beach Road. "You used to see drunk kids hanging out of cars, people going crazy all over the place. Business is slower now. Everything's just different."
"It has no personality at all," said Teresa Rackers, 20, of Panama City Beach, a student at Santa Fe Community College who was shopping in Tracers. "Kids would flock here. The only kids I know who are here now are here to visit home."
It's a natural phenomena, Panama City Beach Deputy Police Chief David Humphreys said.
"It's a migratory thing," Humphreys said. "Spring Break has been hot here. It's been hot in Daytona. It's been hot in South Padre Island. Now, I think the place is Cancun. We'll never not have a Spring Break. But I don't think we'll ever have what we used to. It's a bittersweet thing, just like any change can be."
Fewer students create less trouble, Humphreys said.
The city is still doubling its police coverage, adding 50 additional officers to its usual cadre of 50 with the help of a mutual-aid agreement with other police forces in the county, Jackson said.
The fluorescent-blue Bikini Beach motel still stands next to new pastel towers with names like Twin Palms and Pelican Beach.
And beneath the cranes and scaffolding working on even more new towers, students on motorized scooters still wore shorts when it was too cold to do so, shouting to each other from across the street on their way to the bars.
"It's still a nice place," said Jimmy Gimbel, 21, of London, Ontario. "And all the stories are true. You get hammered first thing in the morning. The girls are easy. It's a dream."
"Seriously," said Joe Kelly, 22, grinning widely. "Down the street, there are 25 cent drinks all the time. At our hotel, the drinks are free. What more do people expect?"
Amy Reinink can be reached at (352) 374-5088 or reinina@ gvillesun.com.

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