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Its Been 25 Years Since Fort Lauderdale Yanked the Spring Break Welcome Mat;
Economic Slump Has Some Wondering if There Should be a New Welcome Mat
By Story Liz Doup Photography Carey Wagner, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

Mar. 29, 2009 - If this hotel could talk, it might hiccup. Or belch.

Heaven knows, enough beer has flowed through it.

Over the decades, Spring Breakers have flocked to the Tropic Cay Beach Resort in Fort Lauderdale, and no wonder.

Cheap rooms. The ocean yards away. And a deskman who doesn't notice when nine kids pile into Room 213 with enough beer to fuel a frat house.

But the Tropic Cay, a 43-room hotel built in 1954, is an endangered species.

One by one, the wrecking ball is wiping the low-slung mom 'n' pophotels -- ground zero for Spring Breakers -- off the map.

In their place: luxury hotels offering concierges and caviar, housing guests geared to Cristal, not Jell-O shots.

The remaking of "The Strip" is a generation in the making, and growing up has been painful.

After 9-11, tourism -- the city's lifeblood -- took a dive. Recent financial fiascoes have created the worst economic slide since the Great Depression, delaying beachfront building projects that would replace modest hotels with glitzy resorts.

Mix of tourists

Even with financial setbacks, that once-infamous piece of real estate has, like South Florida, changed drastically in the nearly 25 years since 370,000 college kids swarmed the beach.

Fort Lauderdale isn't just a beach town anymore. It boasts a performing arts center, a convention center and other cultural attractions.

These days, the tourism bureau targets a mix of people, including families and the wealthy.

"You can't cater to MTV and Girls Gone Wild and expect anyone else to want to come here," said Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It demeans your destination."

Luxury resorts, including The Trump, The W Hotel and the Ritz-Carlton now dominate the landscape where wet T-shirt contests were once the draw. Last year the city approved a 22-story building, the Ocean Wave Beach Resort, where the Tropic Cay and another hotel now stand.

"Every year something happens that makes bringing Spring Break back further and further from reality," Grossman said.

But the economic downturn has delivered a painful punch to redevelopment. Several developers have asked for more time to build beachfront hotels.

In January, the Ocean Wave won a delay. A month later so did Stay Social Hotel. This month, another request: to delay the 18-story hotel that would replace the now-closed Howard Johnson's, a Spring Break landmark.

The economic slide makes newly elected Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler cautious.

On one hand, he doesn't think college kids are ideal tourists because they don't spend enough. On the other, the city needs all the revenue it can get, he says.

"I know my position sounds cloudy," he said. "But it will remain that way until we talk about this as a commission."

History vs. luxury

From her vantage point, Leah Crohn, 22, sees both the old and new. Sitting poolside she looks directly at The Trump, a gleaming monolith towering above the three-story Tropic Cay.

But she's more interested in sunshine than status resorts.

"Loving it," she said, "the weather, the beach. ..."

Crohn, her boyfriend and seven other guys from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in snowy upstate New York, are sharing a $130-a-night room. At The Trump, a desk clerk quotes room prices starting at $400.

Fact is, most Spring Breakers are too busy blowing off steam to care about Fort Lauderdale's storied history and its luxe new image.

Crohn wasn't born when Fort Lauderdale hung out the No Vacancy sign for Spring Break. Her mother was all of 5 when the 1960 movie, Where the Boys Are, based on a Glendon Swarthout novel, changed Fort Lauderdale forever.

By showcasing the city as a place for fun, sun and romance, the film put the sleepy little beach town on the map.

As years passed, Spring Break got bigger and wilder. Notoriety replaced fame. Fort Lauderdale snagged national headlines for wet T-shirts and wet willies, for banana-eating contests, for drunken boys toppling off hotel balconies.

After its peak in 1985, the city yanked the welcome mat.

By the late '80s, a desolate Strip attracted even worse desperadoes than tipsy frat boys. Prostitutes, panhandlers and drug dealers replaced Spring Breakers.

Then developers claimed the carcass and began the makeover.

Today's crop of mature tourists doesn't attract salacious headlines that keep the city's name in the news. Not a bad thing to those promoting the city.

But the man who first generated Spring Break excitement might not agree.

Six months before his death in 1992, Swarthout told a story about his last trip to Fort Lauderdale in the late '80s.

He bypassed the Elbo Room's beery aroma for a more sophisticated setting at the underwater bar at the Sheraton Yankee Clipper.

He told the bartender he'd once written a book about Fort Lauderdale.

"Oh," the bartender said.

"Then I told him, 'The book was Where the Boys Are.'"

"Oh," he said.

Swarthout paused before speaking again.

"That's fame for you," he said. "It's fleeting."

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Liz Doup can be reached at ldoup@SunSentinel.com or 954-356-4722.

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To see more of the Sun Sentinel or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to http://www.sun-sentinel.com/.

Copyright (c) 2009, Sun Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

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