This photo, which adorned a postcard circa 1964, depicts the teeming boardwalk of Daytona Beach, Florida at the height of its tourist season. The boardwalk shops and attractions are open for business. At the lower left you can see a miniature golf course, where young men in swimming trunks are gathered around. There’s also a Ferris wheel and what looks like a small circus tent of some kind. The beach is crowded with cars as well as people and their umbrellas. Whether or not this was literally taken during “spring break,” this photo epitomizes what Daytona Beach meant in American culture, especially youth culture, in the mid-1960s.
Spring break, at least American-style, could only have existed in the decades after World War II. The prosperity of the postwar boom made college within the financial reach of millions of middle-class families, and that same prosperity gave rise to the automobile culture–fueled by cheap gasoline and the expansion of American infrastructure to handle millions of new cars. When school let out for spring holidays, college kids packed up their cars and headed to places like Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale. The amount of drinking and partying that went on in these places in the 1960s was pretty staggering. Outside of Wacken, Germany in the first weekend of August, I’d peg Daytona Beach during spring break in the 1960s as one of the highest per-capita beer consumption zones on planet Earth.
Spring break and its rituals accentuated another 1960s cultural feature: the generation gap. Elders didn’t quite get why kids flocked to the beaches in late March, guzzled beer and raised hell (not as if the elders hadn’t raised a lot of hell in their own youths). In January 1964, the police chief of Daytona Beach sent a letter to various universities, warning them that records of kids’ arrests for spring break-related mayhem in Daytona Beach would be forwarded to the FBI–presumably jeopardizing the kids’ future job prospects. The letter was accompanied with a strict list of “don’ts” over the holidays, chief among them being don’t get drunk and don’t dress in a manner that could be considered indecent. I’m not sure it helped. Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach continued to attract tens of thousands of spring college revelers for decades, and problems with drunkenness and property destruction continued well into the 1980s.
Not surprisingly in an era of crisis for university education (not to mention climate change, which impacts everything related to cars and car culture), spring break pilgrimages to places like Daytona Beach have fallen off in recent decades. The era represented by this photo is mostly over. But in the middle Sixties, there was no better–or drunker–place to be than Daytona Beach in late March.