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“Yet there is no settlement of its size, either North or South, East or West, that contains a more respectable, law-abiding and industrious population.”
-A Volusia County Tourism Pamphlet, 1875

The best time to strike is when they are stuck in traffic. Unable to move, they serve as perfect targets for my new friend Chris, a sizable African-American fellow with gold-rimmed Aviator glasses featured prominently under his black bandanna. Around his neck lie at least 50 pairs of beads that he will offer any woman in sight because, let me tell you, Chris is on a mission. As his 300-pound frame waddles down Atlantic Boulevard, he finds his newest prey. “Oh, can I have some of those beads?” another nameless drunken college girl yells out of the passenger window of her friend's Nissan Maxima.

“You’ve got to earn your beads,” the Master coldly declares, as he turns around to give a knowing wink to his four too-old-for-this-type-of-shit cronies, writhing in anticipation on the sidewalk. She looks back at her three friends in the car and giggles. They give her two nods and a shrug. That means it’s a go. Grinning from ear to ear, she lifts up her shirt, exposing her breasts for a brief moment. The sidewalk gang busts out laughing. It is well over the twentieth pair they had seen that Friday night, but the novelty of the act has yet to wear thin.

Hell, not much loses its appeal through drunken eyes in Daytona Beach. Whether it be attending a Wet Boxer/Wet T-shirt competition (for sexual equality’s sake) at the Plaza, funneling straight Absolut vodka, or looking for cheap thrills on a street corner on a Friday night, the beach town offers world-class opportunities for the participation in and observation of the most hedonistic activities imaginable. And are you ready for the best part? The official spring break motto is “Whatever happens in Daytona, stays in Daytona!”

This year’s three whirlwind weeks of collegiate browning, baring, and blacking out was by no means the first installment of spring break on the shores of Daytona though. Actually, this particular locale has earned a long and storied tradition as one of the premier spots of post-pubescent, pre-adulthood debauchery. However, life on the Daytona shores did not always involve a fifth of Jack Daniels and three condoms in your back pocket.

Back when the sleepy beach town’s pioneers officially named the town after one of the city’s chief benefactors Mathias Day in 1876, Daytona was a sparsely populated area with miles of untouched sand and vast stretches of live oak trees. When word spread of the area’s natural beauty, tourism quickly turned into Daytona’s primary source of economic gain. In fact, the droves of vacationers flocked southward with such force that by the early 1900s, the city’s (rather cumbersome) slogan read, “Daytona, The Mecca of Tourists, Premier Winter Resort.” Not only did Daytona attract a high volume of visitors, but those who did make the journey also happened to be among the most prestigious members of American society. The Rockefellers owned a vacation home there. President William Harding frequented the beaches of the region. The founders of Daytona Beach had created a highbrow setting in which the nation’s elite could escape the rigors of northern life.

From this point on in Daytona history, this era’s ability to attract a large yet refined clientele has served as the city’s model of perfection—a standard that it has been trying to regain ever since. Rather suddenly though the popularity of the city began to wane because of the toll that the Great Depression and World War II imposed upon the nation. Due to the economic restrictions and militaristic obligations of the time, too few Americans could afford the extravagance of vacationing in the South.

Nevertheless, phoenix-like, Daytona would rise again. Realizing that the city was faltering without a healthy dose of tourism and looking to cash in on the burgeoning spring break market, Daytonans decided to cater to the collegiate demographic. Once the winter resort of the stars, the beach town transformed itself into a haven for collegians looking for a spring time release. In the early years of the ‘60s and ‘70s, spring break in Daytona more closely resembled a Frankie Avalon flick rather than a Traci Lords one, complete with beach balls, cool winds, and true romance. With a squeaky clean image, the Community built significantly upon its reputation of being an excellent travel destination, and its members were pleased to see their city return to national prominence.

Donald Patrick, a sun-swept older gentleman with some paunch to spare, partly owns the Travelodge Hotel on the main strip, and he remembers this period in Daytona’s life cycle with great affection. “Back in the old days, the beach was free, and it was unrestricted day and night. It was great because everyone used to build fires out there and spend the night. A whole lot of life was right on the sand itself….Since then though, the Community has forced the beach into less activity by cutting down on the hours and types of activity allowed on the [actual sand].”

This “Community” that Patrick speaks of has always believed that it possesses a supremely ordained right to set the agenda for all those lucky enough to spend some time within its city limits. The Community rules above all else down there dammit, and ain’t nobody going to change its mind either. For these people, Daytona Beach not only serves as their place of residency, but it also acts as their main link to their familial heritage.

However, despite its lofty intentions, not all of the Community’s choices over the last several decades have ensured Daytona’s long-term success. Actually, Community members are notorious for guarding the city’s precious boundaries with so much zeal that it has been known to blind their better sense of judgment. “I don’t always understand the mentality here,” a local travel agent divulged to me. “Twenty some odd years ago, Disney wanted to build out in Daytona Beach. This area was Disney’s first choice because we have the beach. But the good ol’ boy mentality that operates Daytona said we don’t need that kind of trash here.”

Trying to escape a garbage bag of Disney waste, Daytonans would soon find themselves drowning in a landfill. Opting out of becoming the East’s hub of all things Mickey, Daytona administrators still held huge aspirations for the city, so they decided to beef up their reputation as a spring break town by inviting MTV down to broadcast the town at its sunny best. Though Daytona immediately became the spring-break capital of the world, the Community exposed its great naïveté with this decision as the telecasts unearthed the seediest aspects of Daytona and its severely sloshed visitors. Tricia Savard, a public-relations specialist for the city, recalled these days without the slightest hint of nostalgia. “We aggressively went after spring break business in the mid-1980s, and it was a ‘be careful what you wish for’ situation. In the peak of the MTV days here—the late ‘80s and early ‘90s—we had about 500,000 kids here, which almost tripled the population of our city overnight. You like having houseguests, but you don’t necessarily like having 500,000 of them.”

Needless to say, not every one of these visitors conducted himself with the utmost of class and dignity. Stories of rampant sex, hardcore boozing, and public urination are now infamous around Daytona. “Because we had the MTV craziness,” Savard continued, “the kids who chose to come here were those chasing the spotlight. Put a TV camera in front of a group of people, and as crazy as they might get on their own, the camera ups that notch even more.”

Tired of seeing their beloved city paraded as a modern day Gomorrah for one week every year, the Community members kicked Pauly Shore and the rest of the MTV crew out for good to competing destinations like Panama City and Cancun. Spring break, an event that had not only grown to separate Daytona from most of the other Florida beach towns where New Yorkers go to die, but also had offered many of its residents financial prosperity, had finally worn out its welcome. A city that had always been plagued by the debate of choosing between unpredictable expansion and comfortable stagnancy finally settled on the latter. MTV had led the Community’s 1920s ideal too far astray. Nevertheless, the decision would not, excuse me, could not last long. This is Daytona Beach after all—the city that cannot survive economically or socially without a healthy number of tourists crawling around the boardwalk.

When I first crept down Atlantic Boulevard this March, I had absolutely no idea how vehemently against spring break many residents had been. Seeing packs of guys carrying cases of Busch Light and staring at bikinied girls strutting down the sidewalk with the knowledge that they would be the object of every man’s wayward glance, I thought I had hit hedonistic pay dirt. Not a single sign existed that would serve to prove that the Community had adamantly denounced such behavior less than a decade ago. In fact, the Community realized that Daytona simply could not be as strong without these unwelcome vacationers. “As a Community, how are we going to keep the concerns of the residents in mind while still not turning away the visitors?” Savard asks, pointing out the fundamental contradiction of the Community. She continues in an attempt to explain the state of Daytona life: “The city is currently going through a ‘visioning process.’ The city administration is trying to get its arms around being a special-events town….because for the last couple years, all of the city’s events have been growing [in terms of attendance].”

However such a transition does not occur without a fair share of growing pains. The local travel agent explained, “I was young once too, but we weren’t allowed to pull some of the crap that you kids pull…. It seems like most kids come down here to booze it up and see how many condoms they can use in the day. I don’t think that the people who live down here should have to put up with this behavior.”

The beauty of the “What happens in Daytona, stays in Daytona!” mantra is that it allows the vacationers to leave their sins behind as they cleanse themselves on their car rides back to their respective universities. The ugliness of it lies in the simple truth that all the transgressions committed there remain for the Community members to sift through. With each passing year some of them feel as if the stench of hedonism grows more and more odious until they have no other choice other than ending the whole unholy cycle. The Community still grapples with the dilemma of whether or not to turn a blind eye to the moral degradation that characterizes the city during the ritualistic spring festivities because of the vast financial rewards that it reaps. Nevertheless, after ardently rejecting its role as the spring-break capital of the world a mere decade ago, the Community is learning how to cope with merely being on the Mount Rushmore of such destinations. More importantly, the Community recognizes that the “golden age” of Daytona has long passed, and it needs to embrace a different brand of visitor in order to retain its national popularity.

Cheryl LaPeer, the director of the Halifax Historical Society knows more about Daytona Beach than just about anyone, but her own conflict reflects that of every other Community member. “Personally, I do not like having all the spring breakers here,” she admits, “but I understand that tourism really does contribute to the economic base of the area. I’m afraid that if it all left, the place would fall down around our ears.” Despite all of the internal struggles though, the vacationers continue to have the time of their lives. It seems like Johnny, an extremely short, tanned high school senior with two pierced nipples is having the most fun of anyone. As this anti-Rockefeller explodes across my hotel room with unequivocal energy and bubbliness, I ask him what should be held accountable for his demeanor. “Look at this, Greg,” he answers with his body as much as his voice. “There are so many chicks and so much booze. What a great city Daytona Beach is!”

© Greg Veis 2001

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