COCOA BEACH, Fla. -- Armed with bikinis and suntan lotion, Valparaiso University students Kiera White, 21, and Breanna Klibinski, 20, fled the frozen Midwest for Daytona Beach and the sunny Space Coast during their two-week spring break.
"It is freaking awesome. It is way better than Indiana. I'm happy to be here," said White, a junior political science major. Both women set up their towels last week amid fellow sunbathers near Coconuts on the Beach.
"I'll take sand and beach anytime," she said.
College revelers are descending in droves on Cocoa Beach and other Florida party hotspots, blowing off classroom steam and consuming copious amounts of alcohol along the oceanfront. Most kids from northern locales have been cooped up by an epic, bitter winter.
Though Florida's spring break hotspots evolve, with some cities dropping off students' radar and others popping back on, statewide tourism continues to grow during January, February and March. Out-of-state visitors during those months have increased from 19.4 million in 2000 to an all-time high of 26.3 million last year, Visit Florida data shows. That's a 36 percent jump.
And 2014's first quarter is on track to shatter that record, said Paul Phipps, chief marketing officer for Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing corporation.
"This is going to be a very good year for spring break because of the weather that the Northeast has experienced for several months. There's pent-up demand, and it's the opportunity to go south and have a good time," Phipps said.
The unusually cold winter is also pulling tourists to Florida from southern "drive markets" such as Birmingham, Ala., Nashville and Atlanta, Phipps said.
"They've had winters like they haven't had in a long time. We've really been the beneficiary of that," he said.
Travelocity online booking data ranks the Orlando area — including Brevard County — as the United States' second most-popular spring break destination between March 1 and April 15.
South Florida heads the top 10 list for the third consecutive year, while Fort Myers ranks fourth and Tampa-St. Petersburg eighth.
Mike Morris works at Beach Shack at the end of Minutemen Causeway, which is ground zero for Cocoa Beach's spring break revelry. He started drinking at the bar in 1976, stuccoed the building in 1984, and started bartending in 1989.
"We didn't really get the spring break crowd like we do now until Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale started running them off. Cocoa Beach wasn't a spring break town in the '80s — it was pretty much under the radar," Morris said.
"Now, when the weather's nice, this place is freaking mobbed. Sunday, this place was a zoo," he said.
Students on spring break play volleyball at Cocoa Beach, Fla.(Photo: Malcom Denemark, Florida Today)
Morris noted that a beer pong table near the bar's beachfront deck Tuesday attracted about 50 college kids.
"Did you guys used to come here when you could bring furniture on the beach? They'd haul out couches, end tables, lamps," Morris said. "Guys would put the hotel room on their credit card and leave all the hotel furniture on the beach."
The Cocoa Beach City Commission banned indoor furniture from the beach in 2007.
Phipps attributes statewide spring break attendance increases to parents and children, rather than party-seeking 20-somethings.
"We are the No. 1 leisure-travel family destination in the United States. So when you look at first-quarter numbers, spring breakers are really a relatively small part," Phipps said.
"It's families of all different generations. That's what's driving the record numbers we have in Florida," he said.
The Orlando region's No. 2 spring break ranking is a prime example, said Courtney Scott, Travelocity senior travel editor.
"Families of all ages can spend anywhere from one day to two weeks fully immersed in the sights and sounds of Universal Studios, Epcot, Disney's Magic Kingdom and Legoland Florida, just to name a few," Scott said.
"Yet, within an hour's drive — or two hours with frequent toddler stops — families can shift gears to lounge and play at Cocoa Beach or explore Kennedy Space Center," she said.
Debbie Hymore-Tester is a former mayor of Port Clinton, Ohio, and she lives directly across the street from snow-swept, ice-covered Lake Erie. She arrived Wednesday in Cocoa Beach with eight relatives, and her group boarded a four-day cruise Thursday from Port Canaveral to Nassau.
"We got out of the Ohio weather. Oh, my gosh. When we got here it was gorgeous. We hung out by the pool, and everybody at the hotel was so nice," Hymore-Tester said.
Years ago, Phipps said, Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale tamed their legendary wild spring break crowds to become more family-oriented destinations.
Hoteliers set occupancy standards so eight to 10 college kids could no longer pack into a room, and dirt-cheap hotel deals were also discontinued, Phipps said. City officials also emphasized safety regulations and cracked down on underage drinking.
However, rowdiness still persists. On Feb. 28, a special detail of Lee County sheriff's deputies began patrolling Fort Myers Beach looking for problematic drunken beachgoers, fights, public nudity and other disturbances, said Tiffany Wood, sheriff's spokeswoman.
In a press release, Lee sheriff's officials also warned residents to lock vehicle doors and roll up windows, park in well-lit areas, and secure valuables in hotel rooms to ward off spring break thefts.
Jim McCrady attended spring break in 1985-86 at Fort Lauderdale Beach as a high schooler from Pittsburgh. He was hired in 1987 as a Fort Lauderdale Ocean Rescue lifeguard. And as a U.S. Lifesaving Association official, he lobbied to expand Brevard County Ocean Rescue operations after 10 people drowned in 2007.
McCrady is now working his 27th spring break at Fort Lauderdale Beach.
"I'll tell you, the differences are tremendous. Back in the mid-'80s, I think we had close to 600,000 kids one year. And the demographic back then was roughly 17 to 22," McCrady said.
"There wasn't a lot of enforcement with respect to drinking laws, so it was pretty out-of-control back then," McCrady said.
"Even Fort Lauderdale's lifeguards have changed over the decades, McCrady said.
"When I started, it was all kids fresh out of high school, maybe fresh out of college. Average age out here was probably 23, 24 years old. Now, our average is about 35 years old. We're all career professionals, all EMTs and paramedics," he said.