In the first of a two-part feature, Lifestyle looks back at the debauchery that turned Fort Lauderdale against the spring break phenomenon

Spring break in Fort Lauderdale was innocent enough at first.

Betsy Dow, Fort Lauderdale High class of 1962, remembers skipping school when the spring sun baked off the last bit of winter chill. “We’d play hooky and go to the beach,” she says. “The next day, we’d rub flour on our faces so the tan wouldn’t show.” Flour-faced Betsy became president of the Coral Ridge Neighborhood Association.

Twenty years later, spring break in South Florida had lost all semblance of innocence. Ed Dempsey, a civilian employee with the Fort Lauderdale Police Department from 1975 to 1990, recalls walking up to a boozy gathering on the beach. The group was standing in a circle and cheering loudly.

“Inside the circle were a couple of extremely drunk kids, a boy and a girl,” he recalled. “The bottom of her swimsuit had been removed, and she was lying on her back. The guy is on the sand next to her, trying to [maneuver his face toward her lap] as the crowd hooted. The cops got everybody out of there.”

It’s hard to imagine today, especially with all the luxury resorts now lining Fort Lauderdale Beach Boulevard. But 30 years ago, a tourism council member—as noted in Dan Santoro’s 2015 book, Where the Boys (and Girls) Were!—referred to Broward’s prime stretch of oceanfront between East Las Olas Boulevard and East Sunrise Boulevard as “a garbage pit,” in large part because of exploits like the one Dempsey recalls. Spring break would veer so far off the rails that Robert Cox, mayor of the city from 1986 to 1991, actually went on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and encouraged students to find another place to play.

For years, March and April in Broward County meant significant dollars for local businesses as college students from all over the country filled Fort Lauderdale’s hotels, bars and restaurants during their annual weeklong spring vacation. But what started out as relatively harmless fun in the sun during the ’60s gradually deteriorated into the debauchery, destruction and death that dominated the early and mid-’80s.

Looking back, the turn for the worse can be attributed, in some ways, to a numbers game. As spring break attendance grew with each passing year in the 1960s and throughout the ’70s—from 50,000 early on to several hundred thousand—so did the escapades. Historian Susan Gillis, a resident of Oakland Park and currently curator at the Boca Raton Historical Society and Museum, chronicled the escalation from prank to vandalism in her 2004 book, Fort Lauderdale: The Venice of America. “State flags went missing from Las Olas Boulevard; a lifeguard station was torn down to make a bonfire.”

Then there was the influence of Hollywood. Though “Where the Boys Are”—the 1960 film with Connie Francis and George Hamilton, which actually was shot mostly in California—is credited with putting spring break on the map in Fort Lauderdale, it’s another movie that might have signaled the beginning of its end as a Broward mainstay. The 1978 John Belushi classic, “Animal House,” was set in the early ’60s, but its glamorization of food fights, drunken buffoonery and anti-establishment hijinks resonated with the college students of its time.

The Bluto Factor

Chuck Malkus moved to Fort Lauderdale after graduating from the University of Kentucky in 1981, “four years before the city put the hammer down on spring break and began arresting my Alpha Tau Omega fraternity brothers.” Malkus, who now heads Malkus Communications Group, recalls that the drinking age then was 18. “If you were younger, you could get a phony ID made up pretty easily; as long as you showed something that said you were 18, you got a drink. Kids went to great lengths to have IDs that looked real.”

They went to even-greater lengths to keep the alcohol flowing for as long as their bodies could handle it. As Dempsey notes, the drink-’til-you-drop mentality was, in many ways, a turning point for spring break in Fort Lauderdale.

“In the ’60s, spring break was fun; violations of the law were incidental to having a good time,” he says. “If the police saw a group of kids turning rowdy, they’d ask them to move on. And they did. No problem.

“But then came the ’70s, when we got more of a confrontational attitude. [Incidents] became very public—and very obnoxious. As the ’80s came on, we started getting this really bad attitude; the kids would intentionally confront the police. Drugs became commonplace.”

As spring break entered its “Animal House” phase, the police department sent Dempsey to the beach with a movie camera. “What I noticed was the willingness of these kids to put on a performance for the camera,” he says. “When they knew they were being filmed, the girls would pull up their tops. It was an attitude of outrageousness: ‘Do something to get on television, get your 15 minutes of fame.’ The kids didn’t care about consequences because they knew that there would be no punishment.”

“Things had been building for years,” says Robert Dressler, Fort Lauderdale’s mayor from 1982 to 1986. “But when I got elected, I didn’t see spring break as a problem. I thought it was cool. The county’s tourist development council saw spring break as the biggest thing they could build on. So they started promoting it.

“Unfortunately, the beach at the time was seedy. So many bar and hotel owners lived off spring break and did nothing for their properties, which got trashed every year. But it was business, and the owners had a lot of influence.”

Spring Break Goes Mad

John Kowalenko now operates an event management and catering operation in the Hamptons. For much of spring break’s heyday in Fort Lauderdale, he managed a Holiday Inn (it’s now a DoubleTree) at State Road A1A and Sunrise Boulevard.

“With the students, there would be [forced] evacuations of the hotel,” he says. “Not just ours but many of them, including the Days Inn, which shut down at one point because people were throwing Coke machines off the balconies. At [our] Holiday Inn, the girls would be at the windows pulling down their tops, and the guys would be wagging their bare butts. Then they started throwing beer cans [off the balconies]. Sometimes, somebody would get hit. Other times, they were shooting fireworks. At [a certain point], we made an executive decision to screw all the windows shut.”

At one point, Dressler says, the tourist development council hired a Mad magazine cartoonist to create an ad showing “all the fun to be had at Fort Lauderdale’s spring break.” The marketing ploy brought yet another tidal wave of students in 1985—some estimates go as high as 450,000 visitors that year.

“As it cranked up, city officials were getting outraged calls from people in the nearby condos and from the non-bar businesses on the beach,” Dressler says. “There were no facilities, trash was everywhere, the noise was unbearable. It was clear that city management was going to have to do something.”

Dressler called an emergency meeting of the Beach Advisory Board. At the public forum, an overflow crowd booed representatives. Dressler says it reminded him of that scene in “Frankenstein,” where the villagers come with torches and pitchforks. The mayor and the commissioners planned meetings with different groups, from the police force to the sewer department. Spring break had to stop.

But not everyone wanted the party to end.

Fight to the Finish

“The bar owners who had been making money fought us tooth and nail,” Dressler says. “Most were bottom-of-the-barrel people. The motel owners could make a year’s money in a few months, then take it easy the rest of the year. They didn’t want us to do anything.”

Before James Naugle began his 18-year run as mayor of Fort Lauderdale (1991-2009), he was a city commissioner, elected in 1985—“right in the middle of things.” He recalls that the hotel owners were not put off by the damage the kids were doing; they considered it “the cost of doing business. And they were making so much money.

“The expense for spring break fell on the city,” Naugle says. “For police overtime, for portable toilets, for garbage containers. The beer merchants were getting lots of money, but the city was getting the tab. The real pressure came from residents, who lost the use of their beach for six weeks.”

Added pressure arose as college students started to die. “Kids were walking drunk out of the bars and being hit by cars,” Dempsey says. “Or trying to jump from hotel balcony to hotel balcony—or from the balcony to the pool below—and missing.”

In a New York Times story from that era, Kowalenko, then manager for sales and marketing at the Holiday Inn, said, “Someone is invited to the room or balcony next door, he’s got suntan lotion on his hands, and he loses his grip on a rail; it can happen as quick as that.”

Kids were walking drunk out of the bars and being hit by cars. Or trying to jump from hotel balcony to hotel balcony or from the balcony to the pool below and missing.

It happened that quick in March 1986, when a student fell off a 16th-floor balcony at Pier Sixty-Six. With drug- and alcohol-related incidents (and deaths) also in the news, spring break was making headlines for all the wrong reasons.

“The mayor and the commissioners asked us, ‘What do you think? What can we do?’ says retired Fort Lauderdale police officer Fred Holmes, who was a member of a 12-man tactical patrol unit during the spring break era. “We said, ‘Put a stop to it by getting the business owners to act. These are the people who own the hotels.’ They would just ask for more cops, more cops. We answered, ‘We don’t have enough men.’ ”

As 1985 wore on, Fort Lauderdale created a spring break task force that contained all the city departments. It was part of a bigger task force that comprised citizens, hotel owners, bar owners—“everybody,” Dressler says. 

They came up with a plan. A crackdown. The city told the bottom-of-the-barrel hotel and bar owners, “we are no longer going to put up with this,” Dressler says.

What happened next at The Button South—the famed Lauderdale beach bar and ground zero for spring break excess—is disputed to this day by the man who was arrested there in September 1985.

One thing that isn’t in dispute: The relationship between spring break and Fort Lauderdale was about to come to a bitter end.

Editor’s note: Part two of Lifestyle’s story on spring break will appear in the May 2018 issue.