Kacey was blue. Not because someone had just awakened him. Not because it was 4 in the afternoon, and he was naked and confused. No, he was literally the color blue. His friends had drawn on his entire body with a blue Sharpie.
A 21-year-old student at the University of Kentucky, Kacey, like many spring breakers contacted for this article, asked that his last name not be published for fear that word of his activities in South Florida would get back to school officials or family. Kacey came to Fort Lauderdale several weeks ago with 10 fellow Kentucky students and had been drinking all day when he returned to his room at the Premiere, an inexpensive hotel just off A1A, for a nap. Except that during spring break (pronounced "SPRING BREAK! WOO!"), that's called "passing out." And when his pals decorated him like the walls of a public restroom, it was called "shaming." More than six feet tall, with dark hair and broad shoulders, Kacey stood on a third-floor balcony at the Premiere completely nude but for a beach towel that he held over his crotch. He rubbed his face, where someone had drawn a ring in his nose and blue, shaggy sideburns. He examined his arms, legs, and chest: all blue. "The worst part about it, it was my Sharpie," he said. "I brought it to use on them."
His friends gathered around him to point out the various blue works of art on his body. Across his forehead were the words "I HAVE AIDS." Around his neck was a mock prison-style tattoo that read "THUG LIFE."
"Oh my God, look at his eyes," said Jessica, one of his friends. "Close your eyes, Kacey: Oh my God, look!"
On his eyelids someone had carefully drawn small eyeballs. When Kacey blinked, it looked like the tiny eyes were winking.
Kacey looked dazed. No doubt that was at least partly a result of the alcohol in his blood. All the ink seeping into his skin may have had something to do with it, too, but more than anything Kacey seemed dazed because that's the goal of a true spring breaker: to get so blasted on vodka and rum and bourbon (plus a bowl or two of the chronic that he and his pals brought from Kentucky) that the world spins with fantastic fuzziness and all the problems of an American college student melt away.
Kacey squinted. Blue and all, he was having a great time. "And I know everyone responsible for this," he said, pointing to a blue penis that had been drawn on his chest. "I'm not mad, but I will get revenge. Oh yes I will."
"That's what spring break's all about," said his buddy Brad. "You fuck with people when they're passed out, they fuck with you back. You won't catch me passing out around these fuckers."
Brad was referring to his Kentucky friends, of course, but by extension "these fuckers" also clearly encompassed all the vacationing kinds of college students that Fort Lauderdale has been trying to shake for 20 years, the ones who drive 18 hours straight to get here and pile six-to-a-room into cheap motels, the ones who pound watery beers on the otherwise calm beaches. They're the young people that then-mayor Robert O. Cox said were no longer welcome when he went on Good Morning America in 1987 to declare the end of a decadent era in the place that invented spring break.
City elders say there's no place for them in the new Fort Lauderdale, an affluent oasis composed of towering condos and upscale shops. They'd like to think such groups now head for Panama City, or Daytona, or maybe Cancun. But they've carved out a place here for themselves.
Brad and Kacey and their crew, among an estimated 13,000 college students who still pick the city as their spring break destination, did not come for the fine dining and shopping. They came for the inexpensive party town of legend, with easygoing police officers and easier-going girls. They came for the Fort Lauderdale logged in decades of American cinema, the birthplace of the wet T-shirt contest, where hard bodies and binge drinkers come together with soft beaches and reliable birth control.
The Saturday after most schools in the country released their students for a week's vacation, the Miami Herald ran a story about the new spring break in Fort Lauderdale under the headline "Girls Gone Mild." The students quoted in the story claimed they came to Fort Lauderdale to get away from party places. The debauched days are over, says Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It took a long time and a lot of hard work to get rid of that element. Now we're about families snorkeling and young couples dining at trendy cafés or a group of girlfriends getting away for a 'shop and spa' splurge. Seeing a mother dabbing sunscreen on a baby's nose doesn't exactly bring out the wet T-shirt side of people."
Kacey, blue, was still wearing only a towel at the Premiere amid a swarm of bathing-suit-clad, male and female breakers. From an open door spilled even more young, toned Kentucky girls. Kacey put his arm around Jessica, a freckled strawberry blond wearing a red bikini and a white beach dress. "Aren't Jessica's boobies great?" he said, motioning as if he were going to squeeze her breasts. "She's got the biggest tits, seriously. We all just love them, like they're new friends. Who wouldn't want to suck on one of those monsters?"
Jessica looked embarrassed.
Then out of the room shot Sammy, a small, dark-haired girl with thick red lips. She looked at the illustrations on Kacey and laughed. But as he turned she looked mildly upset. "OK, guys, at least wash the swastika off his arm," she said. "I'm Jewish and I don't want it to look like Kentucky is a bunch of rednecks." Then she asked where the hash pipe was hidden and disappeared into one of the hotel rooms.
"Seriously though, how the fuck am I supposed to get permanent marker off the rest of my body?" Kacey asked.
"Use vodka," shouted Jason Curd, a Kentucky buddy who brought a backpack full of booze everywhere he went. "That shit won't come off with just soap. Especially the thing on your nipple there."
Kacey examined his nipples, which had both been colored blue. Around one was a series of concentric blue rings, like a target.
Sammy re-emerged with a small glass pipe in her hand. She exhaled a puff of skunkish smoke and passed the pipe to a thicker blond girl. Kacey leaned in on the blond girl, who had the straps from her bikini top dangling over the front of her towel. "This girl hooks up with all the basketball players at UK," he said. "She likes 'em big, if you get what I'm sayin'." Then he pointed to the 12-inch penis his friends had drawn across his stomach. "But I've got the biggest dick on this beach right now. It's drawn right here. They don't get bigger than this monster."
A group of spring breakers in yellow polka dot bikinis passed the Premiere and looked up at the Kentucky crew on the third floor. They put their fingers in the air and shouted up "Spring break! Woo!" Kacey, Sammy, Brad, Jessica, and everyone else on the balcony raised their hands and screamed back "Spring break! Woo!"
"See, I don't even know those people," Kacey said. "That's what spring break is all about. Fucking spring break, woo! Now who has my pants?"
When he turned, he revealed an even larger penis drawn on his back and pointing downward, as though it were positioned to enter him.
The roar of partiers still echoes off the thin walls of the Elbo Room, Fort Lauderdale's best-known spring break icon. On busy nights it thunders down from the balcony and out over A1A, over the bright, clean beach and into the teal abyss of the Atlantic. The sound hovers in the air, thick and malty like the mingled aromas of beer and sea breezes, hanging like the legend of spring break over the bar and the entire city, a phenomenon that dissipates but never fully disappears.
Some bars still get rowdy. Some kids still drink themselves into a stupor and fall off their stools. The occasional asshole still picks a fight or breaks a bottle. But no one seems to believe Fort Lauderdale is or will ever be the spring break Mecca of years gone by. When visiting students hit a critical mass back in the day, they were too destructive; it was too much to deal with traffic jams and drunks urinating along street fronts.
Today's diehards grew up watching MTV's spring break coverage every year. They heard tales about epic consumption, legendary debauchery. Most modern breakers vaguely know the quaint 1960 movie Where the Boys Are; they're much more familiar with the hardcore partying depicted in formulaic beach flicks like 1983's Spring Break or 1987's Revenge of the Nerds 2: Nerds in Paradise. They've come to expect the pranks, the scores, the reserved kids who let everything go while they're as far as possible from their parents. Folks who like sweet-tooth love stories go to Paris if they can afford it; degenerates, perhaps now more than ever, come to Fort Lauderdale.
The city's party-central image was born in the late 1930s when the swim coach at Colgate University in Hamilton, New York, brought his team down to practice at the Casino Pool, the first Olympic-size pool in Florida. Word spread of beaches that stayed warm in winter. By the time Where the Boys Are came out there were already beach-clad crowds engulfing the streets. The movie, based on a novel by Glendon Swarthout, was an hour-and-a-half-long summons to college kids to vacation here without fear of law or judgment.
It opens with a helicopter shot of a broad beach and a voiceover straight out of a radio cigarette ad that says "For 50 weeks of the year, Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is a small corner of tropical heaven, basking indebtedly in the warm sun. During the other two weeks, as colleges all over the country disgorge their students for Easter vacation, a change comes over the sea. The students swarm to these peaceful shores in droves, 20,000-strong. They turn night into day and the small corner of heaven into a sizeable chunk of bedlam. The boys come to soak up the sun and a few beers. The girls come, very simply, because this is Where the Boys Are."
In one scene, the chief of police tells his officers to do everything in their power not to arrest the crazy college kids: "Now, these kids didn't come down here to break the law. They'll break it for sure, but that's not their main objective. And remember that they are our guests. So I want every man on the force to try his best, his level best, to try to avoid arresting anyone. I know that this going to take great will power, but try. And above all preserve your sense of humor — 'cause you're gonna need it if you want to survive."
An early cross-promotion, the film gave pop star Connie Francis her first movie role, as Angie, the hockey-playing big girl who manages to snag a guy with very thick glasses (see, she's chubby, so only a blind guy would like her; get it?). She also sang the title tune, and at one point, halfway through the movie, she burst into another song, "Turn on the Sunshine," without any explanation at all.
The more recent, more ridiculous Nerds in Paradise captured the next generation in spring break's evolution. The film opens with a throaty narrator saying the nerds are going to a fraternity conference in "legendary Fort Lauderdale." The voiceover sets the scene: "It is a time for fraternity leaders to discuss the philosophy of brotherhood, to set guidelines for their organizations... and get laid." Nerds also has a helicopter shot of the beach, this time to the tune of 38 Special's "Take Me Back to Paradise." Characters become more rudimentary; instead of the tan, suave, son-of-a-millionaire Ivy Leaguer played by George Hamilton in Where the Boys Are, the men in Nerds have names like Booger and Ogre. The Alpha Betas chug brews, crush cans on their heads, fondle hot Pis and try to rid themselves of the party-crashing nerds. The nerds find the wet T-shirt contest, outsmart the apish Alpha Betas, and do indeed get laid. The formula is simple: Kid is excited about time off from school spent in paradise, kid gets bummed when he learns paradise isn't what he had hoped, kid makes the best of it and has a kickass time anyway (and often scores with the unattainable beauty), kid's life is better for the experience. Of course, it doesn't take into account the reality of liver damage, public intoxication arrests, or gonorrhea, but those things are seldom fun to watch in a movie.
Paris was ready for nine days of nonstop boozing under the Florida sun. He left Indiana on the Thursday before spring break and drove for 18 hours straight. Classes are generally cancelled on the Friday before vacation, and he didn't want to miss a day in paradise. A 21-year-old Indiana University student, about six feet tall and round, he was on his second consecutive spring break in Fort Lauderdale. This time he brought roomfuls of his Beta Theta Pi brothers and friends from another fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega.
"This is probably the main place Indiana people looking to party go for spring break," he said. "It's just always been that way. Nobody ever told us they cancelled spring break."
On Tuesday morning, Paris was one of the only spring breakers awake at the Premiere. He wore red board shorts, a white shirt, and a red ball cap with the words "INDIANA UNIVERSITY DIVING" embroidered in white. With a black marker, Paris had added the word "MUFF" before "DIVING."
He tip-toed to a door and listened: silence. It was just before 10 a.m. He pounded with both fists. It sounded like a hurricane. He shouted "Wake up! Get up! Time to get up, people! It's Power Hour time!" He went to the next door and repeated his thunderous greeting.
A few doors opened. The rooms were filled with golden light that poured over crooked pictures on the walls, clothes tossed on the tile floors, and half-empty bottles on nightstands. The morning light brought groans from the young men and women, some of whom were still drunk from the night before.
They gathered at Paris' room and assembled shot glasses, one for each participant. They opened cans of Natural Light, checked the time, and began Power Hour. The game: Everyone takes a shot of beer every minute for 60 minutes. That's six to 10 beers in an hour. This is not to be confused with Century Club, which is 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes. "Century Club would just be stupid," one spring breaker pointed out. "We've got all day to get that trashed."
After a day of tossing a football on the beach, Paris returned to his room. "This is like Miami on the cheap," he said. "Panama is trashy and they have a lot of high schoolers there. Cancun is fucking stupid. Fort Lauderdale is like the cool, classy way to come out and get tore up. And for Indiana people, this is just a warm-up. We have the biggest party school in the nation."
His buddies began to reappear at the hotel, Jeff and Jared and Dana and Haley. Paris pointed at Dana. "This is her — this is Dana from Indiana. You should see her suck some dick."
Brett walked over with his shirt off. He was a muscular young man, like an Abercrombie model, with a farm-boy smile. "This is paradise," he said. "This place is a single-man's paradise and I fucking love it. From the first fucking hour here." He began the story of his arrival in Fort Lauderdale. Unlike Paris, Brett flew in.
"I did spring break the right way," Paris inserted, "kicking it off with a road trip."
"It was like 500 bucks for the flight and hotel, total," Brett said. "So I show up, I put my bag down in my room and step into a friend's room to say hi. I guess I said something offensive or something to this one girl, and she started acting all upset. I go up to her and kiss her on the forehead, and I was like, 'Does that make up for it?'"
The guys in the room listened intently, even though they'd already heard the story.
"She's like, 'No, that doesn't make it better,'" Brett continued. "So I go up and start kissing her on the lips. Like we're just making out right there in front of everyone. And she's like, 'Nope, still not enough. We should go to the beach and maybe you can make it up there.' So we walk down to the beach, and right away we start skinny-dipping. And we come back up here and go in my room and start showering off. We start doin' our thing, you know, and we didn't even realize there was a towel over the drain or something. Like half an hour later, we look down and realize, 'Oh shit, that's water like pouring out of the shower.' And it was everywhere, the entire room was flooded, my bag and clothes and everything. But still, that was one hell of a first hour, right off the plane."
"You still should have road-tripped it," Paris said.
Soon the Betas and ATOs of IU were swaying and shouting into the afternoon air, to anyone who would listen. The raunchy chant went something along the lines of "Shit! Fuck! Cunt! Bitch! Piss! Ass! And I fucked your mom!"
A family of four who had parked near the hotel and walked to the beach was returning to their van. The mother heard the singing first and rushed the two young boys into the vehicle.
Brad was in such a hurry to start his spring break road trip that he left the brace for his recently broken ankle in his Kentucky bedroom. Even worse, he forgot his fake IDs ("we have a printer that can make them for just about every state"). No worries, though; he still had his parents' minivan loaded with seven people, plenty of booze, and a giant bag of pot. Fifteen minutes into the 16-hour road trip from Lexington, someone pulled out the nitrous oxide. "It gives you the wah-wahs," Curd explained later. "You try to talk, but it just comes out 'wah wah wah.'"
They left the Friday that kicked off spring break, the moment that Brad, a friendly, muscular, 20-year-old business major, finished the midterm for his management class. He'd given his friends the keys so they could pack the van while he was taking his exam and pick him up on the way out. "I was ready to blow off some steam," he said. "I'm not gonna tell you I didn't throw up somewhere on the trip. But I wasn't driving anymore by then, so it's cool."
Kacey and two others made the trip in Kacey's Acura, he said, taking shots of Kentucky Gentleman the whole way.
Early in the week, they hit bars along A1A. They saw the Girls Gone Wild crew filming on Sunday. They spent an evening at Off the Hookah trying to take advantage of an all-you-can-drink special; Kacey got drunk there but not so much that he wasn't aware of how fantastic it was, he said — not the bar per se but the moment in general, the euphoria. He toasted spring break and then he slipped into a fist-pumping trance for half an hour.
"That's my thing, like my move," he said later. "When things are going really good for me or something, I do this thing where I spread my legs and just pump my fist... Plus, they were playing a lot of techno, and secretly, when I'm drunk, techno is probably my favorite music to listen to."
On the second night of the trip, Brad met a few attractive young women who worked in promotions, which meant basically that they were paid to go to a bar and look hot. It was 7 a.m. by the time he made it back to the Premiere, only to discover that his key didn't work in his door. Someone had fastened the deadbolt. So Brad went to the manager and said he'd been locked out. As the two of them went back upstairs, Brad said, an odd thing happened. Each room at the Premiere has a window, and beneath the window are glass slats. As they walked upstairs, two glass slats fell from the second floor, crashing on the concrete below.
The manager looked at Brad. Brad looked at the manager. Then, where the slats had been, they saw a foot with red toenails.
Brad was tired but intrigued, so he followed the manager to the room in question, and recounted the following exchange:
"Is this your room?" the manager asked the girl who answered.
"Uh, no," she said. She seemed drunk.
"You have on the wristband," the manager said. Paying guests are given wristbands to help distinguish freeloaders.
"Yeah, so maybe it's my room," she said. "What's the problem?"
"You broke the glass there. You have to pay for it."
"I don't know what you're talking about."
By then the manager had entered the room and found a guy in board shorts, without the blue wristband. "You get out," the manager said.
Later, Brad said, he asked the guy what had happened, and the guy said, "I was railing this chick in there. We were pounding on the side of the bed there, and we fell off and her foot went out the window... I told the manager and he thought it was so funny he let the chick stay. He was gonna kick her out and still make her pay. Now she still has to pay, but she can stay here for the week."
As the sun sank and the crowds cleared, a group of guys from Ball State lingered on the beach, which was littered with plastic cups and beer cans. One, his brown hair in a Mohawk, chased a seagull as the others laughed. They were drunk.
On A1A, two tipsy girls in black swimsuits tried to cross at Vistamar Street. One girl walked into traffic, and then, confused by her friend calling her name, turned around and walked back. Car horns blasted at her, but they couldn't sober her up. A man in the back of a passing cab yelled, "Suck cock, whore!"
A homeless man with a beard and a beer in a paper bag approached the guys on the beach. "You got a quarter or some change, man? You guys got any change for a donation?"
The Mohawk kid got close to him. "Nah, man, we're on the beach," he said. "We don't have any money at the beach." The homeless man looked down. The kid stepped closer. "You like weed?" he asked. "We could get you some weed."
"What I could really use is a nice big crack rock," the homeless man said with a half-laugh.
"Yeah, OK. We'll get you some crack. You show up right here at this spot tomorrow morning, we'll get you crack. We feel you, man. Right here, tomorrow, after breakfast."
The homeless man seemed skeptical. "Alright, tomorrow."
As night fell and the beach darkened, the other side of A1A lit up. Brett and Paris and the Indiana gang were at Howl at the Moon, the bar with dueling pianos on the third floor of BeachPlace. The two piano players took turns playing the fight songs of Indiana University and Purdue, fierce in-state rivals. They'd play the song of one school until fans from the other put enough cash in the jar of their piano player, going back and forth, IU, Purdue, IU, Purdue. "Is that all you got?" the Indiana player said to the crowd. "Guess the Purdue fans just care more." The IU fans booed. The Purdue song played. And then an IU fan put $400 in the Indiana jar and said "I think Indiana just won."
Downstairs, at Fat Tuesday, a bouncer closely inspected what was supposed to be a South Carolina driver's license. He looked at the young men before him, who were wearing Theta Chi shirts. "Don't you ever, ever come back here with these," he said, handing the ID back to the spring breakers, who quickly headed for the stairs.
"Fuck that," one of them said. "These things work everywhere in Bloomington. It just cost me 40 dollars to get my ID back from down the street."
"This is supposed to be the place where everyone gets drunk and everyone gets laid," another one complained.
In time, the other side of A1A went dark and the sun rose on another day of spring break. The beach slowly filled with tan young people. Girls arranged their towels in groups and discussed life's stresses while wearing $300 sunglasses and $200 bathing suits that can't get wet. Many wore heels to the beach. Toned, tanned guys tossed footballs and waded in the ocean. Banners flown by small airplanes advertised drink specials and car insurance. For a moment, at the right angle, it could have been 1985; put larger hair on the girls and it could have been 1960. But even Where the Boys Are has a dark side — one of the girls, played by Yvette Mimieux, gets date-raped.
The bearded homeless man came back the next morning, wearing the same blue jeans and black shirt. He spotted the Ball State kid with the Mohawk, who was sprawled on a towel on the sand. "Hey, you said to meet you here," the homeless man said.
"You said I should come back in the morning."
"Oh! Oh yeah." He turned to his friends: "This is the guy who wanted crack." A small group gathered by the homeless man.
The Mohawk kid picked up a small white rock. "Here it is!" he said, raising the pebble. His friends cackled.
"You said you had crack, man."
"Yeah, yeah, this is crack... Where's your pipe?"
His friends chimed in: "Smoke that crack rock, we got it for you."
Eventually they got the man to put the pebble in a small glass pipe he had.
"I know it's not crack," the man said. "I've seen a crack cocaine rock. I'm not a crazy idiot."
One of the kids turned his back for a moment. "Fine. Here, we're sorry," he said. "Have a beer, man. We're sorry we tried to get you to smoke a rock that wasn't crack."
The homeless man looked skeptical but he reached for the blue plastic cup. He took a sip and cringed. He threw the cup down and spit into the sand. The Ball State spring breakers were in hysterics. "Holy shit, dude," one said. "We just got a homeless guy to drink piss — how crazy is that shit?"
By Thursday, Kacey, his face still bluish, was wistful. With one more night left in Fort Lauderdale, he was at Sloppy Joe's in BeachPlace for a wet T-shirt contest. Blitzed, he became nostalgic for the trip he was still on. "These are the best times in our lives," he said. "I'm serious about that."
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The wet T-shirt contest had been scheduled for 11:30 p.m. It was almost 1 a.m. and still no girls had signed up. They were just feet from where the Candy Store Lounge once stood, where the wet T-shirt contest was born. In the '80s the Candy Store was the epicenter of the party-as-a-verb spring break crowd; when it was razed, in 2002, it made way for the St. Regis, the first five-star resort in Fort Lauderdale.
Kacey circled the room, hugging girls he'd met earlier in the week, raising drinks to toast the good times, soaking up the last drops of the party. He thought about the drinking, the drugging, the hellacious lasciviousness, and decided that this had been the best week of his life so far.
His phone vibrated. It was a text message from a girl he'd met on the beach and seen a moment ago near the dance floor. It said "I want 2 make love 2 u in this club 2nite."
Kacey looked at his buddies. If this had been an '80s party movie, this is where the screen would fade and the credits would roll to cheery music replete with a blazing saxophone, but life is not a movie. So Kacey spread his legs and bent his knees and, clearly feeling all the joy that is a depraved spring break gone precisely according to plan, he pumped his fist in the air.