The Deal With Documentaries: ‘Spring Broke’ shares the history of a famously reckless vacation

The 2016 documentary shows the rise and fall of two of the most popular spring break destinations.

As MU students returned to classes this week, some sported tan lines and newly emptied bank accounts. Instagram was flooded with pictures of packed beaches, skimpy bikinis and some of the most clever ways of drinking beer I have ever seen.

College kids have made spring break into more than just a time to relax from classes and enjoy the nice weather of the spring season. The 2016 documentary Spring Broke dives into the rise and fall of Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, the two places cited as being the birthplace of modern-day spring break.

Spring break festivities found their start in Fort Lauderdale in the 1930s with the hosting of the annual swim forum, which gathered collegiate swimmers and coaches to train as a community. However, more students began flocking to the Fort Lauderdale beaches because it had some of the only waterfronts safe from the presence of U-boats during World War II. Spring break in the 1940s became a source of escape from the fear of war for students across the country.

The 1940 boom in spring break attendance lead to the writing of Glendon Swarthout’s “Where the Boys Are.” Swarthout, an English professor at Michigan State University, wrote a profile on some of his students and their experiences at Fort Lauderdale. The book gained traction, and was adapted to the screen in 1960. The film was so successful that the following summer after its release the Fort Lauderdale spring break population peaked at 50,000.

Bud Asher, a hotel owner in Daytona Beach, saw the success of Fort Lauderdale’s spring break and wanted to get in on the profit. In an effort to attract business to his Florida city, Asher dropped ping pong balls with the phrase “Get on the ball and go to Daytona Beach” written on them into the water surrounding Fort Lauderdale to attract students. In its first year of hosting spring breakers, Daytona Beach recorded a visitor population of over 20,000. This marked the start of a competition between the two cities to host the best break.

Spring break in Fort Lauderdale fizzled out with the rise of Daytona’s success. The debut of MTV in 1981 and the earliest developments of live streaming brought spring break festivities into the living room of anyone willing to watch.

In 1993, after a long battle between residents and visitors, Daytona Beach shut down spring break. It cut all ties with MTV, and students, with their 15 minutes of fame exhausted, felt no incentive to make the trip.

With each raging party and spring break population increase, both Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach experienced an influx of injury, crime and disturbances. The documentary profiles the struggle to keep the cities functioning as drunken students clogged up the streets. First responders, including Chuck Campbell, who covered Daytona spring break from 1985 to 1989, share accounts of attempting to save the lives of the reckless population around them.

“[There was] a bloody pool deck, and then you've got all these college kids 10 feet away from this fatality and they're over there laying out in the sun like nothing ever happened,” Campbell said.

Most students I saw this spring break went to South Padre Island, which is located off the south tip of Texas, along the Gulf of Mexico. After watching this documentary, I wonder if Padre’s fate will be that of Lauderdale and Daytona. I hear stories and pieced-together recollections of Padre and the antics that occur there. Alcohol poisoning, lost phones, stolen money, trashed condos, fights on the beach and anything else you could imagine would happen when students are faced with warm weather, cold drinks and a 24/7 party.

Spring Broke is a cautionary tale not only to those who call spring break destinations home and those who migrate there for a week off, but to those looking to profit from the pilgrimage. The film is a look into the dangers of “unrestrained capitalism” as stated in the documentary. Spring break will never not be a thing. If it ends in one town, it migrates to the next. Students want an escape, but as shown in Spring Broke, a place of escape can soon become a place you want to escape.

MOVE gives Spring Broke 4 out of 5 stars

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