A Quick and Dirty History of Spring Break


Party On: Devon Windsor, Diego Boneta and Rachel Hilbert attend Victoria's Secret PINK Nation Spring Break Beach Party in Cancun, Mexico on March 15, 2016. Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Victoria's Secret Pink

Do you smell that, the unmistakable odor of stale beer and sunscreen mixed with regret? Yes, it's that time of year again, when hundreds of thousands of American college students descend on resort towns in Florida, Mexico and the Caribbean for a week of day-drinking, EDM-thumping foam parties and more than a few poor decisions.

But how, exactly, did spring break become a booze-fueled rite of passage for American coeds? And do today's college kids still get psyched about a week of sunburn, hangovers and fried shrimp specials, or have they moved on to more respectable choices?

Blame the Greeks

Let's start with some history. Ancient history. Turns out you can trace the roots of Spring Break all the way back to those crazy Ancient Greeks. Apparently, it could get stressful inventing democracy and Western philosophy all day, so the Greeks liked to blow off some steam each spring with a three-day "awakening" dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine and fertility.

But the real start of spring break as we know it was in the mid-1930s, when a swimming coach from Colgate University in frigid Upstate New York decided to take his team down to Florida for some early training at a brand-new Olympic-size pool in sunny Fort Lauderdale. The idea clicked with other college swim coaches and soon the spring training migration became an annual tradition for swimmers nationwide.

Since you can only swim so much (wrinkly fingers are a real thing), the college athletes also excelled in partying. Word got back to campus that Florida wasn't a bad place to spend Easter break and the flow of northern college students to southern beaches started to pick up through the 1940s and 1950s.

'Where the Boys Are'

But the uncontested landmark moment in spring break history was the publication of a little book originally titled "Unholy Spring," but smartly changed to "Where the Boys Are." In 1958, Glendon Swarthout was an English professor at Michigan State University who tagged along with his students (not creepy at all) to witness their Beatnik-era shenanigans in Fort Lauderdale.

Dolores Hart, Paula Prentiss, Yvette Mimieux and Connie Francis star in the original spring break movie, 1960's 'Where the Boys Are.'
GAB Archive/Redferns

Back then, hooking up was called "playing house" and Swarthout witnessed enough house-playing, beach cruising and beer-chugging in Fort Lauderdale to fill his breakout novel, published in 1960. MGM quickly turned "Where the Boys Are" into a blockbuster romantic comedy that made spring break in Florida seem like paradise -- or at least a version of paradise where you sleep 20 people to a hotel room but the cute guy has a yacht.

After "Where the Boys Are," the spring break floodgates were officially wide open. Seemingly overnight the numbers of college students visiting Fort Lauderdale over Easter vacation went from 20,000 to 50,000. By 1985, an estimated 350,000 students mobbed Fort Lauderdale during spring break. In response, the town passed tougher public drinking laws and the mayor even went on "Good Morning America" to tell spring breakers to take their balcony-diving, drunk-driving antics somewhere else.

Which they did. Other Florida beaches had already begun to pick up the overflow from Fort Lauderdale, including Panama City Beach and Daytona Beach.

The latter became the shooting location for MTV's first-ever spring break special broadcast in 1986. By the mid-1990s, MTV's annual skinfest had become a cultural institution, showcasing live musical performances and lots of Carmen Electra in a bikini from spring break destinations like Cancun, Jamaica and (for some reason) Lake Havasu, Arizona.

Around the same time, another spring break tradition was born far from the beaches of Florida or Mexico. In 1983, some black college students in Atlanta, Georgia, organized a picnic for kids who were stuck on campus over Spring Break. This was a few years after the number-one disco hit "Le Freak" and Rick James' "Superfreak" was still big, so the organizers decided to call their picnic gathering Freaknik.

What started as a small get-together with burgers, hot dogs and a boom box would explode over the next decade into THE Spring Break destination for black college students (and high school students, and anyone else who felt like coming). By 1996, hundreds of thousands of young black people would cruise into Atlanta for Freaknik, clogging traffic day and night for a multi-day street party. Freaknik cemented Atlanta as a Mecca of black culture, but the party fizzled out around 1999, as the mayor cracked down hard on cruising.

Gone are the heydays of MTV and Freaknik, but is spring break still a big deal for today's college kids?

Alternative Spring Breaks

Numbers are hard to come by, but as recently as 2013, Panama City Beach was drawing 500,000 people a year to its sugary white (minus the barf-stains) shores. Then, after a particular nasty Spring Break in 2015, Panama City officials voted to ban all alcohol consumption on the beach, which has apparently drained the life out of the party.

What's clear is that college students today have a lot more choices for how they want to spend their spring break. The beaches are definitely still popular -- according to a 2015 survey, 50 percent of college students planned to go somewhere "warm" for spring break -- but so are trips that emphasize meaning over mayhem.

In 1989, Habitat for Humanity became one of the first volunteer organizations to offer an "Alternative Spring Break" to college kids looking to give back over vacation. Since then, more than 260,000 students have participated in Habitat's Collegiate Challenge, including 7,000 in 2018, according to a Habitat spokesperson.

Today there are hundreds of alternative spring break chapters at colleges and universities across the United States. Kelly Esenther is a sophomore psychology major at Michigan State University where she's the education coordinator for Alternative Spartan Breaks, which organizes 17 different trips each year for activities like trail construction or HIV advocacy.

In an email, Esenther says that more than 200 MSU students sign up each year, even though they don't know where they're going until they're accepted into the program. For them, it's about the experience, not the destination.


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