The number of years since I’ve last been to Panama City Beach is growing, but it still holds lots of fond memories and is somewhere I would like to go back to. I did a six month assignment for a former employee where I worked at a hospital doing IT strategic and project management, and had a blast.
I was down there back in 2004, which seems so long ago! I arrived in April and stayed through October, so to whatever degree of luck you’d consider, I missed Spring Break.
Spring Break has been a staple of many Florida coastal towns for decades, and Panama City Beach has been one of the top destinations for several decades, and has really taken off over the last decade.
Unfortunately, this last decade has really seen it take off the wrong way, along the lines of a swirling toilet flush.
It’s bad. Last year, Fox News (I know many don’t trust the source, but this story didn’t have a whole lot of political angle involved) did a story about a lot of debauchery that goes on down there. People talked openly about drinking and drugs out on the beach, often by underage college kids. They joked about it on camera. Crime skyrockets. Hotels get trashed. People fall off balconies. And, young people go on camera fully admitting that things get out of control.
After getting nationally embarrassed by this report, the local government put in a series of measures for this year designed to better control and get a handle on Spring Break. I follow the local newspaper online and I was less than impressed. Closing bars a couple of hours early was the ‘big’ win, and it was fought for but the City Council talked about how they really tightened things up.
So how did it go this year?
Worse. Much worse.
This year, there were multiple shootings.
There was a gang rape that happened right out on the beach that was recorded on cell phone video, and it showed hundreds of people just standing around watching the whole thing, laughing.
Officials and partigoers admit that this happened all the time. Let me repeat. People get sexually violated out in the middle of the beach all the time and people stand around laughing about it. Before this was reported, police released a picture of a girl who looked very underage, yet the full photo apparently included her fully naked holding a beer and surrounded by multiple college guys.
There was more crime than ever. The number of drug related arrests goes up. They put every cop on the street and beach and there’s no keeping up. It just goes on and on.
Fox News went back this year and it was not pretty.
The sad part about it is that apparently it took local officials by surprise. They had their head in the spring break sand fully expecting that it was going to be better this year. The only voice of reason was the local sherriff who basically said that what the half measures weren’t going to work.
Spring Break 2.0 On The Way
After the news kept coming out and kept getting worse, local officials finally got together and dropped the hammer. With a couple of weeks left in the Spring Break season, they banned alcohol on the beach. Fully. No more.
Prior to that, you were theoretically allowed to have it if you were 21. Which I’m sure everybody claimed to be, and could the cops really check every ID. No.
Now, it’s easy. If you’re on the beach, you can’t have alcohol. Period.
Apparently, this is set to expire as it was only a temporary measure, but the idea is that they’ll either make it all year around, or institute it during the weeks typically associated with Spring Break. Personally, I think limiting it to Spring Break would suffice, as I can attest from my time down there that the beach is really cool and calm and very well under control for at least mid-April through October.
Who Wouldn’t Want This?
The people that might opposed to this are likely those who make their money from Spring Break. There are clubs and hotels that cater to Spring Breakers, and I’m sure in their eyes, the more beer that’s consumed, the better.
Obviously they’re not going to like it.
Many residents claim that the tax dollars associated with the hotel stays are crucial to the local budget, and I’m sure that they’re right to some degree, but more and more people are realizing that it isn’t worth it.
And it might not all be lost.
Daytona Beach: Model Citizen For Panama City Beach?
In the mid-1990’s one of the more fascinating things on TV was when MTV showed a couple of weeks of Spring Break. Although it was relatively tame compared to some of the widlness that gets reported now, it still seemed pretty wild. Plus there’s a case to be made that it probably was more wild than we know now but that social media really brings it into the limelight that didn’t exist 20 years ago.
Anyways, when MTV put the spotlight on Spring Break, things spiraled much out of control as Panama City Beach is seeing now. Eventually, their local officials made many of the same choices.
What were the results?
Exactly as expected at first. No more drinking on the beach meant that the college kids stopped coming. Most of them, anyways. Many still came. They largely obeyed the rules. They had fun.
And, very quickly, a different group started coming.
My wife and I recently talked about how we’d love to eventually go down to Florida during Spring Break. She loves a place near Tampa Bay that she used to vacation with when her family went growing up, and I mentioned Panama City Beach. Now, obviously we’d never take our kids down to the mess that has been going on there, but what if it was no longer a mess? There would be a definite case to go down there.
That’s exactly what started happening in Daytona Beach. Spring Break there brings a lot of families. Families who still rent rooms and pay the hotel tax. Families who go to the restaurants and keep the local economy going. Families who enjoy the beach and don’t trash it. Families who have fun that don’t lead to arrests, rapes, deaths, and tragedy that has simply become all too common in today’s Panama City Beach.
Honestly, even though Spring Break is done, I would expect that many families might stay away otherwise. Why give patronage to a town that actively or passively encourages this type of situation to happen and continues to stand by idly watching it spiral out of control? I wouldn’t and I suspect that this could start providing a big negative impact on their tourism throughout the rest of the year.
I will continue to read and see what they do. Now that Spring Break is over, the black on the city still remains. For years the standard protocol was for officials to put lip service against all the crazy and bad behavior, making promises to crack down and get things under control, but the ‘sweeping changes’ of last year showed that this has to stop. Lip service won’t cut it and I seriously hope that as time takes attention elsewhere, that the local government finally takes real measures to make Spring Break a fun, enjoyable, and safe destination.
Over and over again when I was down there, people talked with pride about how Panama City Beach had the most beautiful beaches in the world, and compared to the many beaches I’ve been, they were right up there. However, that beauty has to go beyond the sand, sun and water, and it’s time for Panama City Beach to reclaim their beauty in full.
Readers, have you caught any of the growing media firestorm against Panama City Beach’s spring break? What do you think needs to happen to control Spring Break?