FORT LAUDERDALE (AP) — As they stripped off their sweatshirts and began to toss around a football, Justin Gibson and three college friends had just what they needed to kick off a weeklong vacation from snow and studying for exams.
The sun broke through the clouds, the sand of Fort Lauderdale beach grew warm beneath their toes, and on a blanket nearby was their beer cooler.
“I do wish there were a few more people around,” said Gibson, 20, as he launched a spiral to Indiana Wesleyan University classmate Justin Sauder. “But we don't have to worry about hitting anyone with a bad pass.”
As the annual bacchanal called Spring Break builds toward a peak later this month, there might be a few more college-age revelers on South Florida beaches than there were last week when Gibson and Sauder were here. But not many more.
Almost 25 years after Broward County officials began to actively discourage the Spring Break mayhem touched off by the movie “Where the Boys Are” and fueled by MTV, there is plenty of room for football on the beach where Las Olas Boulevard meets it.
And that is just fine with local tourism officials.
“That low-rated, kind of raunchy thing?” said Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau chief Nicki Grossman.
“No one in the tourism business wants to go back to that.”
Palm Beach County also is well down the list of favored Spring Break destinations, though tourism officials
hope Black Entertainment Television will choose Riviera Beach for a fourth consecutive year as the site of “Spring Bling.”
The April festival of music draws about 3,000 young people to Singer Island.
“It's a big deal,” said Jorge Pesquera, president of the county's Convention and Visitors Bureau.
College students taking in the rays Saturday at Boca Raton beach said they were there because it's a beautiful place and a passport isn't necessary.
“There's no place like Florida,” said John Garrish, 21, a Wagner College junior who was taking a break from the New York snow. “You can go to Cancun and get the MTV treatment, but I'm just trying to relax and it's calmer here.”
Twenty-somethings were playing volleyball, trying to catch a wave or a tan to show off when they return to their winter-struck schools.
But long gone are the chances of finding a $100 beachfront hotel room to serve as a crash pad for any number of sunburned, beer-blasted young scholars on holiday.
Rooms at the Sheraton Fort Lauderdale Beach Hotel, formerly known as the Yankee Clipper, start at $229. And that's for a double, not a dozen.
Some college students pick South Florida because they cannot afford Spring Break hot spots such as Cancun, Acapulco or Panama City.
“I started out with about $350 for the week – that's gas, food, drinks, everything,” said Sauder, who is from Archbold, Ohio.
Many don't even pay for a hotel.
“We're staying in my great-grandmother's house,” said Tara Duhl, 19, an Indiana Wesleyan sophomore who drove from Indiana with Gibson, Sauder and Haley Pearce, 21. “We thought about Mexico,” she said. “But this was the best option for us.”
Nearby on the sand last week were four Minneapolis men, including University of Minnesota political science student Nick Erickson, 24. They were staying with his parents in Fort Lauderdale and socializing on the sand with four women on Spring Break from Cegep de Sherbrooke, a technical school in Quebec.
They, too, were staying with relatives, said Catherine Brendle, 21.
Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler said he understands the economics.
“I was here for four years when I was at Notre Dame,” Seiler said, “and I always brought six to 12 kids with me to stay at my house.”
Seiler's undergraduate years, from 1981 to 1985, marked the heyday of Fort Lauderdale as a Spring Break mecca.
“It was a little crazy, a little wild,” Seiler said. “I was here. I had my share of cold beers on the beach.”
However, Seiler does not want to revisit those days, nor see the city again become a Spring Break capital.
“In this economy, dollars are dollars,” he said. “We are not targeting that crowd, but we're not turning our back on that crowd. Everything in moderation.”