Spring Break Exposed

A 24-Hour Party - Is It Too Much?

This spring, Ben Torrance and three of his friends from Southern Illinois University spent spring break in Panama City Beach, Fla. Peter Van Sant tagged along.

Ben and his buddies are part of the first wave of an estimated 500,000 breakers who over 40 days descend upon the white sandy beach on the Gulf of Mexico.

"We're guys looking for girls, they're girls looking for guys, down here for a good time, to let go for a week or so," says Ben.

Ben's buddies include 22-year-old Jared Stover; 20-year-old Mike Triepke, a wildlife biology major; and Tom Pigg, 20, who had never set foot on a beach. They'll try to charm the ladies and stay out of trouble.

While other Florida towns would rather see these tens of thousands of spring breakers in another place, like Mexico, Panama City Beach has rolled out the welcome mat. Local businesses have funded a $400,000 advertising campaign to lure them from their frozen campuses.

No one is happier to see them than radio host Lee Sullivan, who also happens to be the mayor.

"I hope for good weather, I hope everybody is safe. I hope everyone has a nice time within the parameters," he says.

Sullivan, who was the chief of police for 20 years, believes the majority of breakers get a bad rap.

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"They're your children, they're your grandchildren. They are not inherently evil," says Sullivan, who has been in Panama City Beach since 1956. There has always been a spring break, he says.

Back then, bathing suits left a lot more to the imagination, a "thong" was a sandal, and a "bong" was a deep ringing sound, not something to guzzle beer. Today, spring breakers represent an extraordinary boost for the local economy. In Panama City Beach, they bring in a third of the year's revenues, more than $300 million, Sullivan says.

The job of keeping all the breakers safe falls largely to people like Corporal Clayton Jordan of the Panama City beach police. He's been policing spring break for four years. Nothing surprises him anymore, he says.

Jordan says he is more tolerant than usual. "It is a tolerance, but you don't have the manpower, to pull everybody over, so you try to get the ones that are the most extreme."

On any given day during the spring break season, there are an estimated 75,000 college students partying here and the traffic jams along this popular cruising strip are unbelievable. At 3 a.m., the traffic is still crawling.

When police aren't around, the street party takes on a decidedly Mardi Gras feel: Girls flash for beads.

The boys from Southern Illinois are meeting many girls. "We met some girls from South Carolina, Tennessee, a lot of them from Missouri, a lot of them from Ohio. Everyone's trying to have a good time," says Ben.

Sarah Brown, a junior from Ball State University in Indiana, is also hoping to meet new people. But she isn't your typical breaker. She's one of more than 3,400 Christian students walking the sands, hoping to get breakers to replace a beer with a Bible.

"I think there are a lot of people here just searching, whether its searching for their way, searching for God or searching for whatever else," she says.

Corporate America has also landed on the sands of Panama City Beach. Logos are every where, as companies hope to create brand loyalty with all the young consumers.

For the last 12 years, Ritchie Tarzian's company has been hooking up corporations with college kids. Students spend $15 billion a year in disposable income and that's the big draw for corporations. In a few weeks, their products can be seen and sampled by more than 500,000 breakers.

"To reach those same students on a college campus takes a year and a half," Tarzian says. "From a budgetary point of view, it makes a lot of economic sense to come to them when they're having a good time."

Some police believe that Panama City Beach tourism officials encourage bad behavior, but they're 1200 miles away in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Lincoln Police Chief Tom Casady was appalled when an advertising flyer was placed in the University of Nebraska newspaper. "There were some ads in the insert that contained things like free beer, all the beer you can drink for $5," he says.

What also troubled him was a picture of Panama City Beach police chief Robert Harding, accompanied by a quote saying police there are "tolerant."

Says Casady: "What you're doing is, you're helping to set this environment that not only tolerates high risk and binge drinking, but it really tries to convince college students it's the norm."

Chief Harding says he was misquoted. Mayor Sullivan was a bit more blunt: "They're the same children that they are at home. They do no more or less here than they do in Lincoln. OK? Now you got 'em for 52 weeks. If you've raised them right, I won't have a problem for a week."

One night on patrol, Corporal Jordan gets news about a bad accident. The injured breaker, Brandon Schlosser from Illinois, was rushed to the Bay Medical Center for emergency surgery. Cory Anderson is Brandon's best friend. He says they had been drinking: "We walked up the first flight of stairs, and my friend seen a couple of girls downstairs and, like an idiot, he jumped over the rail, not realizing that he was gonna hit the concrete floor really hard."

Balcony falls happen every year, Jordan says. Hours later, Schlosser died. As Mayor Sullivan gets ready for his morning radio show, Schlosser's death weighs on his mind.

"When we fail to encourage young people, or anybody else that visits with us, to behave responsibly, we've made a mistake," says Sullivan. In response to criticism, tourism officials plan to change their promotional materials.

For their part, Ben and Tom feel they are part of a huge American cultural event. "It's just a great experience that I don't think anyone should miss out on."