Origins of Spring Break

Port Isabel-South Padre Press

February 26, 2015

It’s been known by many different names: March break, Easter holiday, spring vacation or even somewhat ironically, study week. Nowadays, however, it’s more commonly known by just one: Spring Break. Usually occurring in the middle of March, it’s a period when colleges and universities across the country take a break from academics and release students for a week of time free from studies or obligation. Many students, especially those in colder climes, take advantage of the break to plan vacations to popular tourist destinations in warm weather states or abroad where the only things on the itinerary involve relaxing, partying and escaping the cold.

Many bizarre stories can be found when delving into the history of how this week of debauchery was invented, but to really understand the origins of Spring Break, one must first understand that people have long celebrated the season of spring, traditionally considered the season of renewal. Since ancient times these celebrations often involved dancing and alcohol in honor of Greek gods like Bacchus, the god of wine and whence came the term “bacchanal.”

American students have been darting to the coast since the 19th century and the invention of the automobile made traveling across the country a more realistic endeavor. The perfect storm we know as Spring Break can be attributed to several events, the earliest and perhaps most significant one tracing back to 1928. Fort Lauderdale had recently constructed Florida’s first Olympic-sized pool to attract visitors after a devastating hurricane had swept across the state. It was constructed in a bid to bring visitors to the area and also help push swimming as a competitive sport. It worked. Word of mouth led to thousands of competitive swimmers and other student athletes taking advantage of the massive inside pool during their Easter Break, a time typically meant for churchgoing. Following the establishment of the College Coaches’ Swim Forum in 1938, college swim teams around the country were making annual trips to compete at Ft. Lauderdale. By 1958, an estimated 15,000 visitors were making their way to the city every spring. Other major cities soon caught on to the successful ploy, but to this day Florida remains the most popular Spring Break destination in the U.S.

There are a number of other reasons for this holiday’s emergence, one of them being the invention of the tiki bar in 1933 by Ernest Gantt, but probably the most significant being the 1960 MGM release of the co-ed coming-of-age film “Where the Boys Are.” The film, considered salacious at the time of its release, told the story of four young women making their way to Ft. Lauderdale to — as the film describes it — “seek out various adventures and romance.” The film led to similar features following suit throughout the decade, including such cinematic classics as “Bikini Beach” and “Get Yourself All College Girl.” Each successive film tried to outdo the one prior with the amount of shimmying and smooching they could squeeze into their runtimes.

Add in the “Sexual Revolution” which lasted well into the 1980s, MTV’s broadcasting of the festivities, and a few decades of beach songs of questionable quality and Spring Break has become entrenched as part of the cultural identity of America’s youth.

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