Panhandle's spring break beach wants new image

  • In this March 20, 2008 file photo spring breakers take part in a dance contest during MTV spring break activities in Panama City Beach, Fla.

    In this March 20, 2008 file photo spring breakers take part in a dance contest during MTV spring break activities in Panama City Beach, Fla. Associated Press

Published: 2/27/2010 9:26 PM

PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. -- The few beach walkers, surfers and sidewalk shoppers who ventured out on a recent chilly afternoon created a very different scene from the craziness that will soon crank up here as temperatures climb and students descend on this spring break paradise.

March and April on Panama City Beach conjure images of raucous concerts and throngs of barely dressed teens and twenty-somethings cruising the city's streets.

But tourism leaders hope to clean up the hard-partying image a bit in time for the May 23 opening of the Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, the first new airport to open since the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"The airport is the big, new story of the day," says Dan Rowe, president of Panama City Beach's Convention and Visitors' Bureau. Rowe touts the hundreds of new Gulf-front condominiums that have replaced dilapidated hotels in recent years and a sprawling beach-front pedestrian shopping center that opened in 2008.

Spring break is one part of Panama City Beach, but shouldn't define it, Rowe says, urging visitors to check out the revitalized beach year-round for girls' weekends, family vacations, romantic getaways and other events. And he says the new airport will make it easier for tourists from all over to reach this traditionally Southern vacation destination.

"There is a balance we are trying to hit with spring break. There are folks in our community who wish the spring break would go away, but there are others whose depend on it for a major part of their business," Rowe says.

For 2010, the city has ended its relationship with concert promoter mtvU, owned by parent company MTV, after problems with crowd control at a Lil Wayne beach concert last year. And the city council recently voted to spend $25,000 to hire 24 state troopers for extra support on the beach from March 14 to April 11.

A drive down the city's main drag shows both old kitsch and the more upscale.

The giant monkey and T-Rex of miniature golf course overlook a cleaned-up beach parking lot where city signs encourage pedestrians to take a stroll.

Across the street from towering new condominium developments, are inexpensive T-shirt shops, "Everything $9.99 and Under" stores, package liquor outlets and novelty sex shops -- all catering to the spring break crowd.

Among those counting on spring break is Perry Hand who owns Classic Scooter Rentals. The dozens of colorful scooters lined up in front of his stores will soon be rented out to vacationing students.

He's seen constant change in 15 years of beach business.

"It's out with the old and in with the new," he said. "The old is the kids and the cheap motels, the new is the adults and the condos."

But Hand predicts spring break will never leave Panama City Beach for good.

"There are too many businesses that depend on it and promote it," he says.

A quick check of the Internet and Twitter postings gives a hint of the madness that will soon hit this 17-mile stretch of white sand and turquoise blue ocean.

Photos show condominiums with dozens of students hanging out of every balcony, beaches crammed with partying kids and packed night clubs. Travel sites catering to college students offer package deals to Panama City Beach and Twitter is abuzz with talk of spring break and students planning caravans and arranging to share rooms when they head south.

"It's affordable compared to Cancun or Acapulco and you've got the (night) clubs. A lot of other places like Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach, they haven't wanted the kids for a long time. Panama City Beach still has stuff going," said Matt Scriven, sales director for PardiseParties.Com, an online travel site that caters to college students. Scriven has booked trips for hundreds of college students who plan to spend their spring breaks in Panama City.

University of Georgia junior Daniel Burnett will be among the thousands of students making the trip south for spring break. It will be Burnett's fifth spring break trip to Panama City Beach -- he started the annual pilgrimage in high school.

This year, he will caravan with a group of buddies during the five-hour trip.

Panama City isn't as expensive as places in Mexico and it's always a good time, he said.

Burrnett says the biggest draw for him isn't the clubs, the concerts or the condominiums, it's the beach.

"It's just so much fun to hang out there on the beach with your friends. I look forward it all year," he said.