Ed. Note: This is the first in our three-part series about the history of Spring Break in Panama City Beach.

Part 2: ‘Mayhem’ How crime and debauchery in Panama City Beach signaled the end of Spring Break

Part 3: Local leaders say Spring Break is the best it’s ever been


PANAMA CITY BEACH, Fla. (WMBB) — To see it now, you wouldn’t think that for 25 years, thousands of college kids were pounded by the surf— and pounded beers— every March in Panama City Beach.

The town became the home away from home for MTV and several musical legends, like Kenny Chesney and Luke Bryan. They built their careers with massive concerts on the beach and in connection with some of the most popular nightclubs in the country.

The most famous? Club La Vela. A place that once invited the world to ‘party with thousands.’ Spring Breakers paid as much as $80 a night just to walk in the door. And now — after being wiped out by Hurricane Michael and the death of college spring break — the party is over.

A QUIET TOWN

In the 1970s and the 1980s, Panama City Beach was home to small hotels, restaurants and family-owned businesses. They saw good business in the summer— and some family vacations in March.

“There was saying in 1971 that if you shot a cannon down Front Beach Road on Labor Day you wouldn’t hit a soul,” beach business owner Jack Bishop said. Bishop opened The Breakers in 1971 and has opened several other bars and restaurants, and remained in business on the beach for 50 years.

The empty town in March was a major dilemma for beach business owners, who began to pursue Spring Breakers in the early 1990s.

“People on the beach were broke by that time of year and they needed the income,” Mike Thomas said. Thomas has lived on Panama City Beach all of his life— 73 years. He owns a business and served as a Bay County Commissioner, a Panama City Beach Commissioner, and as the Mayor of Panama City Beach.

Spring Break “was a necessity at that time,” Thomas said. “We had nothing for families to do in shoulder seasons.”

At that time, Daytona Beach was the Spring Break king, but residents and leaders there were fed up and wanted to turn out the lights on the party.

The kids came on package tours in buses and filled up the hotel rooms and the bars.

“We didn’t offer them a lot of other things to do but lay on the beach and drink,” Thomas recalled.

But that was enough. Bishop said his club— The Breakers— threw its first Spring Break party in 1992.
His manager called him 75 minutes after the party started and said that things had gotten off to a big start.

They had already sold out of beer.

Bishop added the bars and nightclubs found that they could make millions of dollars in a single month.

And with that kind of money on the table, Panama City Beach became a source of worldwide attention.

THE SPRING BREAK CAPITAL OF THE WORLD

“MTV and La Vela were the first people to put money into Spring Break promoting,” Bishop said.

Club La Vela, Spinnaker and other nightclubs began turning their small stages into places for some of the hottest musical acts in the country.

MTV— back when everyone watched MTV— devoted hours of programming to beach parties, concerts and shows that took place at the clubs.

Bishop said he estimates that the entire beach business community pulled in close to $400 million in March.

“Even McDonalds… It wasn’t just nightclubs and bars,” Bishop said. “It wasn’t only beer and debauchery. It was every facet of the business. The Walmart here set records.”

But local leaders said that what began as a good time evolved into something darker and uncontrollable.

In part two of our look back at Spring Break, we’ll examine how the party ended and why some powerful people finally felt that enough was enough.

“It gave us a black eye that we couldn’t wipe off,” Thomas said.