There is no single way to describe Spring Break, it just depends on who you ask.
Spring Break and Florida don't always add up to what popular culture might conjure up (we're looking at you, Panama City Beach). A popular MTV "reality" show and a perennial high ranking on America's list of favorite beaches can also fuel the fire of fake-news perception.
But, when you talk to various stakeholders about the highest of high seasons at Sarasota County's magnet for springtime fun, it becomes apparent different people see things in different ways, pretty much based on their own experiences.
It just depends on who you ask.
The Tourism Promoters
Contrary to what one might assume, not everybody wants to play up Spring Break to turn a profit.
“We actually have never — nor will we ever — promote Spring Break anywhere in Sarasota County,” President Virginia Haley of Visit Sarasota County said. “With the traditional Spring Break, you have kids from different universities and colleges going to a destination. You have five or six kids piled into one room, heavy drinking, partying. It’s never been a business we sought.”
From a practical standpoint, Haley says that the county sees its highest hotel occupancy rates of the year in March, meaning few college kids could probably afford to stay here very long. Therefore, the more typical visitors are families.
But wait — if promotional officials like Haley aren’t specifically catering to college kids during March, is there anybody else that they are looking to attract?
“Well, the Amish and Mennonites come in huge numbers in March, and they are big fans of Siesta Key,” Haley said. “And that’s why some have called it ‘Girls Gone Mild’ instead of ‘Girls Gone Wild’ … It is a significant part of the market and it is pretty easy to go out to Sarasota and see [them] having a good time at the beach.”
The Business Owners
Good or bad? Business people look at the prospect of Spring Break on both ends of the spectrum.
“We look forward to Spring Break and dread it at the same time, all year long,” said Steve Cavanaugh, owner of Tropical Sand Accommodations on Siesta Key. “We have basically two to two-and-a-half month of extraordinarily busy complexes, restaurants, everything. It’s a wonderful income generation timeframe but it’s also a time where things break, things go wrong.”
Of course, with 37 employees and 532 individual units to manage, Cavanaugh says that Spring Break is stressful because visitors sometimes “check their brains at the Florida-Georgia border” and tend to not be as respectful as they could be. They might drink too much and damage items in the unit they’re staying in, or they might arrive early and not be understanding with management when their rooms are not ready.
But the greater presence of families as opposed to teenagers or young adults, he says, tends to stem some of those issues.
Friends C.J. Tipping, Sydney Pierce, Lexi Palmert and Danica Polson didn't even plan on visiting Siesta Key on their break from college in Virginia.
“We started out in Tampa, and we decided we were stopping here on our way down to Fort Myers,” Tipping said of their road trip in a
pickup truck. “We’re on the hockey team back at school, so it’s kind of just a nice break to come out and get some sun before we’re back on the ice.”
They only planned to visit for the day and had little in mind beyond a day in the sun. And, maybe, some rollerblading.
Not far away in Siesta Key Village coffee shop, the Yochums from Michigan were relaxing.
They've been coming to Siesta Key for 15 years this time of year. College kids don't really bother them, Nina Yochum said.
“[The crowd] is younger, but I don’t really think that it’s all that rowdy,” Yochum said. “We just kind of go with the flow ... So, from our perspective, it wouldn’t really keep us from coming back here.”
No matter their opinion, full-timers know what to expect.
“With the Spring Break crowds, I would expect to see a slight rise in small issues,” Siesta Key Chamber of Commerce member Wendall Jacobsen said. “Noise and bored visiting teenagers are usually the main problems.”
“There are only any squabbles when the Spring Breakers are here, but that can happen anywhere,” echoed Kathy Mortimer, owner of Mount-N-Repair on Siesta Key. “We’re pretty fortunate around here.”
But other residents, such Chamber of Commerce Chair Eric Fleming, actually look forward to Spring Break. As a father of two, he says he particularly enjoys the increased presence of other families.
“I like this time of year,” Fleming said. “The weather is amazing, there’s a lot of families out there, there’s a lot of young people out there, there's a lot of vibrancy that isn’t always the case year-round … It’s an opportunity for us to go out there and have fun with people who are here visiting."
The atmosphere and livelihood of the Key, he said, is actually at its best during Spring Break.
“Like a festival times 10.”
That’s what Sgt. Paul Cernansky, who helps oversee Siesta Key with the Sarasota County Sheriff's Office, says Spring Break on the Key is like.
“We bring extra staffing out because of the extra numbers and visitors,” he said, adding deputies often employ an administrative law tool to help with on-the-spot underage drinking violations. “We change our hours, we rotate a little bit so we have increased visibility."
But from evening bar crawls to crowded beach days, the Sheriff's Office often turns to 19th-century technology.
“To move a crowd, there’s nothing better than a horse,” he said. “You can use different formations to make [the crowd] do different things. It’s like there are 10 officers for every one horse.”
Otherwise, he also says that educating visitors is an efficient means of preventing crime or accidents before they happen. After all, by making sure everybody is safe and having fun, Cernansky says they can help encourage tourists to come back next year.