After the city passed a series of ordinances restricting alcohol consumption, the once-wild beach is now struggling to attract business.
By D’Ariel Myrick, University of Georgia
For Spring Break, my friends and I decided to celebrate in Panama City Beach, only to discover too late that recently passed legislation was going to restrict our weekend on the Florida coastline.
Legislation approved in May 2015 strengthened regulations designed to prevent the Spring Break destination from becoming further associated with debauchery, hooliganism and violence.
As we drove through PCB toward our hotel, my friends and I saw several indications that the laws were in full swing. Before I had even arrived at my hotel, which was about ten minutes from the beach, a sign caught my eye: “New law: No alcoholic drinks between 3/1/17-3/31/17 permitted on the beach.”
The vibes were definitely suffering.
While the mention of Spring Break usually evokes images of white sandy beaches inhabited by hyper-sexed college students drinking Four Loko, that party may be over. While we were there, police cruisers drove by the beach entrance, even pulling up near our area on our last day. While the police presence was unwelcome, it was also unnecessary; there were so few partygoers that the cops probably felt that they were wasting their time too.
The nightlife in PCB felt slightly less restricted, and we saw fewer police cruisers as we drove to dinner on the beach. You could tell local businesses had been struggling because of the new laws, and our waiter at Sharky’s told my table just how hard it was turning a profit without the student business.
“I’m glad you guys turned up,” he said. “I didn’t think I’d get any tables tonight.”
He told us that the bartender had recently become the in-house D.J. in order to attract patrons who wanted to eat and party in the same spot. As we wrapped up dinner, the DJ/bartender began playing “Planes” by Jeremiah, and, as my party and a group of Spring Break girls began to dance and sing along, some older customers moved to a different area. In that moment, you could see the divide that brought about the complaints and subsequent legal amendments, as local residents clearly felt that the Spring Breakers were too rowdy for their off-season tastes.
While many residents may welcome the new laws, some locals are not so keen on them. When my group went shopping, I talked with an employee at Hollister about how regulations have shuttered the economy.
“Last year, about 80 percent of hotel rooms were cancelled when people found out about the new law,” he told me. “This year it’s about 60 percent…The law has gotten out of control, a mom was arrested in front of her kids.”
He went on to explain that, because of the umbrella regulation prohibiting alcohol consumption in March, even people over the age of 21 are being arrested for drinking on the beaches. The rule prevents unruly college kids from abusing the situation, but it also ruins the beach for people who did nothing wrong.
Aside from the occasional police drive-by, the beach was relaxing. Knowing the laws in place, no one in my party brought any alcohol; but, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to guess that the beach was pretty empty because of the new legislation. I had been to PCB last summer and saw way more college students then than I did all three days this March. Nevertheless, the waves and sand were just as fun now as last time.
I noticed some Spring Breakers with a few odd containers, all of which disappeared when police officers came through, but nothing else stuck out.
There were more families than any other identifiable groups, so it felt more like a summer vacation in high school than true college Spring Break.
There were some events catered to Spring Breakers at a local club, La Vela. Rich Homie Quan performed one night when we were there, and Waka Flocka was performing at the same club the following week. Local businesses knew that it was college Spring Break, so they booked some big name artists to attract business; even so, the club vibes and nightlife struggled, at least in this first week of March, because so many students went other places to party.
Also, amusement parks like Race City looked more like ghost towns because of the lack of customers. Last summer, Race City was packed, with several people waiting in line just to go-kart, but this Spring Break, we could buy tickets in less than ten minutes; in the arcade area, there were more employees than customers. It was clear that while the new laws had eliminated a lot of unnecessary violence and disruption, businesses were suffering from lack of customers.
In the end, PCB is a great place to vacation. I will go back for the weather, beaches and food, but, I would not suggest Panama City Beach to any college students who want to go wild on their vacation. As a laid-back person, I didn’t miss much during my stay, but I can tell the party had left the beach. Even the sun and waves couldn’t bring many Spring Breakers out to the ocean, as most probably stayed in their hotel rooms to party, or went to the bars and clubs if they were old enough.
As we shopped and went to different areas in PCB, I saw plenty of college students, but on the beach, there was hardly anyone when we went. As a result, I don’t think I got the full Spring Break experience during my time in PCB, and next year, I could see myself going there for the summer, but to someplace like Cancun for Spring Break.
Though I enjoyed my overall experience in PCB, I can see why many would not choose to visit on their Spring Break vacations. Because of the new laws, even families avoided the city so they would not end up arrested for drinking on the beach. PCB is the place to be for the summer, but not to turn up during Spring Break.