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The Spring Break breakdown

Fort Myers Beach is a destination, but not THE destination. That suits visitors, residents and cops just fine.

April 27, 2016
By John Morton (jmorton@breezenewspapers.com) , Fort Myers Beach Bulletin, Fort Myers Beach Observer

On short notice, Ron Kain wanted to take the family on a spring getaway and he chose Fort Myers Beach on a whim.

"We've never been here, but we knew we'd be warm," said the Columbus, Ohio stepfather of two teenage high-school boys. "And I'd never heard much about it as a Spring Break destination, which is good. We don't want the crazy stuff."

That brought a roll of the eyes from his stepsons. But they understood.

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The Lee County Sheriff's Office makes sure it is noticed with a beachfront location.

"When kids back home talk about Spring Break, it's Daytona or it's Fort Lauderdale or it's Key West," said 17-year-old Randy Fox, Kain's stepson. "No one says, 'Oh, Fort Myers Beach is the place to go.'"

Yet the beach is plenty busy each year during March and April. Is it a place that's ideal for those who want a good time, but not sheer chaos? Is it somewhat a well-kept secret?

"Spring Break here is not too big, not too small. It's just right," said Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott. "It has a reputation of being fun, but also as being accessible for those coming here and manageable for those living here. It's a good fit for everyone."

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Bud Nocera, president of the Fort Myers Beach Area Chamber of Commerce, agrees.

"It really is known as a family beach," he said. "I can't tell you the number of times a family walks into our office or up to the Roxy (Times Square information center) and asks what there is to do, and fortunately we have countless excursions and events that cater to families."

The setting works for the college kids, too, who are usually on their own.

"It mostly takes place in a condensed area, between Miramar Street and Lynn Hall (Memorial) Park, and all the entertainment is walkable," Nocera said. "Everyone knows that's ground zero for the college kids.

"Really, it's a good mix and I think the community is comfortable with what goes on here."

Added Don Stilwell, the Fort Myers Beach town manager, "I don't think there'll ever be support for making this beach a destination for the college students. In fact, what we see mostly during Spring Break are families that often include as many as three generations."

A good scene for all

The beach draws, en masse, two different elements - a nationwide influx, mostly consistently of college students, and a growing local following.

Regarding the collegians, many like the idea of not being part of a scene that has a reputation for rowdiness and intensity.

"Everyone here is so nice - you never see any conflict," said Thayne Krause, visiting from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, as he relaxed in front of the Lani Kai on a makeshift sofa he and his buddies carved out from the sand. "It's laid back and that's what people expect."

Added Ian Hushek, his college friend, "You get older people, you get younger people. It all kind of goes together here."

Megan Barilla, a student from the University of Akron (Ohio), said the layout of the island makes for a good scene.

"This place is pretty isolated and it's a small island, but it's still packed," she said. "You want to feel like there's a lot of energy, and there is, but there really aren't that many people. It just seems that way. You feel like it's 'our space' while you're here."

She also hailed the amenities.

"Good bars, good food, all nice and close," Barilla said. "I highly recommend this place."

On the flip side is a more local following, including local college students. Wanting to avoid the $6 charge it takes to enter Sanibel Island, and the lack of parking, they say Fort Myers Beach is a slam dunk as far as the choice for those in the vicinity.

"You see great drink specials here," said Alex Torres, a Fort Myers resident who attends Florida State University. "It's actually affordable."

His friend, Adam O'Toole, is a local Florida Gulf Coast University student. He said he avoids the big destinations like the plague.

"You get a different crowd here - a lot of people from the Midwest who are just happy to be here," he said. "Other places are getting just too ghetto. If this beach was larger, it would be massively packed. It's good that it's smaller."

But classmate Lyle Blank predicted that could change, as big-name destinations become tiresome for some.

"USA Today lists it as a top destination already," he said. "It's a matter of time before this gets bigger. They're going to be coming because other places are becoming a turnoff."

Then there are the high school kids, who Scott identifies as a growing component.

"We're seeing a noticeable shift of locals versus those who are out of state," he said. "And with the good weather this year, they just kept coming. We even extended our Spring Break coverage plan with an extra two weeks of having boots on the ground."

And the infractions data from the sheriff's office supports that trend - this year, a total of 181 locals (Lee County residents) were arrested for various offenses, compared to 110 last year and just 40 in 2014. As for out-of-town arrests, it dipped to 51 this year compared to 59 last year.

Aaliyah Griffin, a senior at Fort Myers' Riverdale High School who was with friends at Hooter's, said the proximity and curiosity is hard to resist for youngsters.

"It's so fun here and it's not far us," she said. "It's rated as one of the trashiest beaches, so that makes everyone wonder what's going on here."

A fair reputation?

Yes, that same USA Today that ranks Fort Myers Beach as a top destination also ranks it in its top 20 "trashiest." Meanwhile, the online Spring Break guide "www.coed.com" gives it the same dubious title, ranking it within its top 10.

But "trashy" and "great" are somewhat interchangeable terms in the Spring Break mindset. That's not lost on David De Boer, a college student in the Netherlands who with his friends chose Fort Myers Beach during an online search "because we read about a booty-shaking contest at the Lani Kai."

After being part of the scene for a few days, "Things are here are fun but also relaxing," he said. "It's not wild at all, but that's OK."

And that brings us back to the Lani Kai, which USA Today refers to as one of the forefathers of the Spring Break culture. The beach's undisputed hub of college-student activity, it is also known for its Cincinnati Firemen erotic stage shows.

But are the shows as raunchy as advertised?

"You know, I was at the Lani Kai visiting the manager and was on a balcony during one of the firemen shows and it wasn't raucous at all," said Stilwell. "The crowd was happy but calm and it was full of people of all ages. And walking right behind on the beach were kids and parents and grandparents. And the water was full of people enjoying a perfect day.

"It was more like a Norman Rockwell painting than a scene from Spring Break."

And for the record, the firemen show benefits a local charity. This year, it raised $13,000 for the Araba Shriners - the most ever.

Problems are elsewhere

The same can't be said for other destinations, notably what's going on in the Florida panhandle at locales such as Panama City.

"They see significant problems there - so much so the have requested supplemental assistance from departments like ours," Scott said. "We're talking about things like loss of life."

Scott also noted the area is reachable by a large region, while Fort Myers Beach is off the beaten path.

"Not everyone is willing to come this far," he said. "Low gas prices this year, coupled with the great weather, made for a huge Spring Break but Fort Myers Beach hasn't become one of those 'legendary"' places to go and I don't think it ever will be.

"I've known and worked with Don Stilwell (the former county manager) for years and I know he runs a tight ship."

In return, Stilwell appreciates the county's Spring Break law enforcement presence here - an effort that includes a portable beachfront police station that is set up just south of the Lani Kai.

"I don't know if I've ever seen so many police officers, per capita, in my life," he said of Lee County's on-site force.

Best of all, Scott reports that the 2016 Spring Break resulted in no serious incidents.

"We keep a loose perimeter and we want them to be there, enjoying themselves," Scott said. "And the kids responded in a great way. The vast majority behaved."

 
 

 

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