Elbo Room

Fort Lauderdale Beach Bar

March 13, 1997 Fort Lauderdale's Cyber Bar - Boston Globe

Where the students aren't Fort Lauderdale forces spring revelers out
City Edition
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Boston Globe - Boston, Mass.
Subjects: College students; Geographic profiles; Vacations; Spring
Author: Canellos, Peter S
Date: Mar 13, 1997
Start Page: A.1
Section:

NATIONAL/FOREIGN

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Document Text
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FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The three students donned bedsheets like togas, popped open cans of Budweiser, and crammed into the elevator of the Holiday Inn howling "party."

But they quickly realized they were dressed up with nowhere to go: The toga era in Fort Lauderdale has gone the way of ancient Rome.

Once the March mecca for millions of college students from Boston and elsewhere in the Northeast, Fort Lauderdale finally has prevailed in its 10-year effort to divert the carloads of youths and exchange them for upscale tourists, many of them from Europe.

Beer isn't allowed on the beach anymore. The Elbo Room, famed for 50 years as the raucous epicenter of America's Spring Break, now bills itself as "Fort Lauderdale's Cyber-bar" and features cool jazz. And many of the students who have come to Fort Lauderdale this year say they crave swimming and sports -- not drinking and dates.

"We aren't big partiers," explained Kurt Bitikofer, a student at Shippenburg University in Pennsylvania, who was on the beach with three friends. "We're here to relax. The weather's nice and the water's warm."

Bitikofer lay on the beach beside numerous families and wealthy couples, some of them from overseas. These big spenders are the new targets of Fort Lauderdale's $3.4 billion tourism industry.

"We always believed we were more than just a college place, but spring break dominated people's ideas about Fort Lauderdale," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor's Bureau. In seeking a new image, she said, "We basically made the college students feel unwelcome."

The city's campaign, punctuated by a $26 million remaking of the beachfront, an upscale new mall, a riverwalk, a performing arts center, a science museum, and the opening of a convention center, has worked wonders: The number of student vacationers has dropped from 350,000 in 1985 to fewer than 10,000 today. And wealthy foreigners have arrived to take their places.

But from Las Olas Boulevard, where T-shirt shops have given way to boutiques, to the beach, where volleyball nets have been supplanted by European-style cabanas, there is an air of loss. An era has passed.

"I don't think anyone could duplicate those days -- they were just up and over the top," said Peter Higney, manager of the Elbo Room, the only spring break hangout that continues to thrive, albeit in a different form. "It was crazy, just pure madness. It was so many kids just going nuts. I've never seen anything like it."

No one disputes that what had started in the 1940s as a seductive treat -- two weeks in America's Eden for overworked students, some of whom had never traveled anywhere -- deteriorated by the '80s into a nonstop keg party.

Back in the '40s, students came with their swim teams, training at the Olympic-sized pool of the Swimming Hall of Fame. Pretty soon, friends began accompanying them to what was then a sleepy, art deco beach community.

By 1960, the film "Where The Boys Are," with Connie Francis singing the title ballad, glamorized spring break as a rite of passage, the first time college students could truly live on their own, free of chaperons.

Ever-greater numbers of students swarmed to Fort Lauderdale until 1985, when an all-time record 350,000 students showed up, cramming 10 to a motel room, sleeping on the beach and, in Grossman's words, "eating out of glasses."

The music channel MTV put its cameras on the beach, with a giant blimp of the Budweiser dog Spuds MacKenzie hovering in the background. It became a round-the-clock advertisement for spring break, now defined by wet T-shirt contests in bars and belly-flop contests at motel pools.

Injuries, and even deaths, became common.

"I was working at Pier 66, which is now the Hyatt, and a few kids were walking from balcony to balcony and fell out," said Tim Wilson, now the bartender at The Zoo, which features nonalcoholic fruit drinks. "It used to be madness. Streets were blocked off because no one could move."

Then came the crackdown: No drinking in public, no sleeping on the beach, no piling into hotel rooms.

MTV decamped for Panama City, way north in Florida's panhandle, where March weather sometimes calls more for sweaters than bikinis. The rest of the college crowd split up among Daytona Beach, the Bahamas, Texas' South Padre Island, Virginia Beach, and Cancun, Mexico.

But many people in Fort Lauderdale believe that, even in those places, spring break is no longer what it was. Wealthier students head for Europe. Athletes spend the break practicing with their teams. Some will always seek out the sun, but not with the brash spirit that marked spring break in its glory years.

"We're all sedate people, so I like it here," said Cindy Neunert, who came to Fort Lauderdale with three classmates from the College of William and Mary. "I thought it would be a lot trashier and was pleasantly surprised. You don't feel like you're in Ocean City, Maryland. You feel like you're someplace nice."

Illustration

PHOTO

Abstract (Document Summary)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The three students donned bedsheets like togas, popped open cans of Budweiser, and crammed into the elevator of the Holiday Inn howling "party."

Beer isn't allowed on the beach anymore. The Elbo Room, famed for 50 years as the raucous epicenter of America's Spring Break, now bills itself as "Fort Lauderdale's Cyber-bar" and features cool jazz. And many of the students who have come to Fort Lauderdale this year say they crave swimming and sports -- not drinking and dates.

"We always believed we were more than just a college place, but spring break dominated people's ideas about Fort Lauderdale," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitor's Bureau. In seeking a new image, she said, "We basically made the college students feel unwelcome."

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