Friday, March 09, 2007

PCB: Spring Break Central

PANAMA CITY BEACH -- On Day Six, the final day of our Florida Spring Break Tour, we have finally come to the nexus of Spring Break as it was intended to be: A wild-and-wooly college party.

Only it’s not so wild. Oh, sure there’s plenty of beer around, and some harder liquor too. But by day, at least, the fun is limited to basketball, beach volleyball, whooping and hollering, a Hula-Hoop contest, football tosses, banana boat rides and, oh yeah, dumping bikini-clad girls in the oh-so-chilly surf.

We did see one group of kids stopped by a police car, sitting roadside surrounded by empty brew bottles. But the roads were surprisingly calm, and it wasn’t until late in the afternoon that rented motorbikes and scooters took to the roadway. Bob Warren, CEO of the local visitors bureau, said he wasn’t aware of any serious incidents or deaths this year.

For the most part, it was a bikinis, beer and beach scene. And for that, Spring Breakers can largely thank the Holiday Inn Sunspree. In the past decade, the hotel has invited corporate sponsors to provide activities, so kids have “something to do besides drink. It’s not beer bongs anymore. There’s a higher standard,’’ said Nicole Steinman, the hotel’s marketing manager.

The 1,500-plus kids who stay at the Holiday Inn each night – most for a week at a time – get toiletries provided by Gillette/Venus, and the girls can get their makeup done in the hotel lobby each evening. Breakers can compete in XBox tournaments compliments of Geico (winners can take home an iPod or DVD player). Or they can chat with staffers at the U.S. Army booth, which has a climbing tower and provides activities like a parachute ceremony. Music around the pool goes until 4 a.m, when the pool is closed for “the evening.’’

Even away from the controlled chaos of the Holiday Inn, the beach scene is relatively tame. More volleyball, a giant inflatable waterslide, country-western tunes, rap tunes, a National Guard stage.

Chelsea Paterson, 19, Jaclyn Baublit, 21, and Stephanie Brady, 20, from Eastern Michigan University, came because they’d heard Panama City Beach put on a good party. They weren’t disappointed. “It’s actually been better than I expected,’’ said Chelsea. “It’s kinds like Cancun, except you can eat the food.’’

Not everyone is partying. At the Majestic Beach Hotel, most rooms were booked by Campus Crusade for Christ, a manager said.

So, do the Crusaders have fun, even though they’re not drinking? “Absolutely. I’d say we have more fun – and we can remember it,’’ said member Andrew Hemby, 19, from Virginia Tech.

And what about non-Breakers? “It was too quiet before the kids got here,’’ said Maria Brown of Ontario, Canada, a retiree, who has been here since December with husband George. “I wish I had the chance to do this when I was young.’’

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