45 Retro Images That Capture America’s Wild Love Affair With Spring Break

Published September 12, 2023
Updated September 13, 2023

Go back to a time when MTV still played music videos.

On a spring day in 1986, millions of people across the United States tuned into MTV — and found their screens flooded with images of raucous concerts, sunny beaches, drunk coeds, wet T-shirt contests, and neon bathing suits. Spring break had arrived in the American living room.

The MTV broadcast offered viewers a front row seat to springtime debauchery, and captured the rapidly accelerating spring break trend. Hundreds of thousands of young people had started to flock to Florida in the 1980s, where they partied to such an extent that the mayor of Fort Lauderdale — or “Fort Liquordale” — begged them to stay away.

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45 Retro Images That Capture America’s Wild Love Affair With Spring Break
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But the spring break tradition didn't start in the 1980s. In fact, the idea of spring break arguably comes from ancient times.

However, it ramped up in the United States in the second half of the 20th century, when books, movies, and, of course, MTV, made flocking to the beach during spring break and having a wild time something of a cultural juggernaut.

Take a look back at some of the wildest days of spring break in the photo gallery above, and read on below to learn more about how spring vacation became such a rite of passage for young Americans.

The First Seeds Of Spring Break

Though spring break feels like a modern tradition, its origins can actually be traced back to the ancient Greeks. Hundreds of years ago, people would celebrate Anthesteria, a festival honoring Dionysus, the god of wine. According to The Atlantic, women would decorate themselves with flowers and men would see who could drink a glass of wine the fastest.

Various iterations of this continued throughout the centuries, including celebrations like Carnival. But the makings of the modern-day American spring break emerged in the 1930s, when a Colgate University swim coach named Sam Ingram decided to train his swimmers in Fort Lauderdale. Before long, the city became a magnet for swimmers and their friends.

From here, spring break began to draw more people and by the 1950s, it had become a destination for college students. In 1958, a Michigan State University professor named Glendon Swarthout decided to go to Florida after he heard that his students were planning a trip. He recounted what he saw during spring break in a novel, Where the Boys Are. (Swarthout originally titled his book "Unholy Spring" because it took place around Easter time).

Where The Boys Are Poster

u/DynastyFan85/RedditA poster for Where The Boys Are (1960), the film that popularized the concept of spring break.

Swarthout's book was made into a hit movie in 1960, and spring break suddenly became a nationwide phenomenon. According to The Cut, some 50,000 college students flocked to Florida for spring break the next year. Before then, the spring break crowd had numbered just 20,000.

And as Time reports, that number jumped to 370,000 by 1985.

Spring Break In The 1980s And 1990s

By the 1980s, spring break had become bigger (and given the prevalence of neon, brighter). And spring break got even wilder when MTV started broadcasting from Daytona Beach in 1986. Not only did Americans suddenly have a front row seat to the festivities, but The New York Times reports that the broadcast also encouraged the spread of spring break elsewhere.

That was welcome news to many Fort Lauderdale locals, who'd had enough of living in "Fort Liquordale." The city imposed stricter liquor laws in the 1980s, and the mayor, Robert Dressler, even went on Good Morning America to announce that wild spring breakers were no longer welcome.

But that didn't stop the party. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, young American college students continued to travel to sunny spots in places like Florida, Texas, and Mexico. In those locales, the heady days of jello shots, wet T-shirt contests, and barely-there bathing suits gleefully continued.

Some segments of society reacted to the wild spring break atmosphere with alarm, broadcasting warnings about binge drinking and risky sex. According to Time, some universities even started passing out "safe break bags," which included things like sunscreen, condoms, and a sexual-assault manual. At the same time, others sought to take advantage of the nonstop debauchery: In the 1990s, Joe Francis started his infamous Girls Gone Wild videos.

In the decades since, the spring break tradition has remained strong. Bustle reports that 40 percent of college students traveled for spring break in 2015, spending almost $1 billion to gather along sunny coasts in Texas and Florida.

Towns, well accustomed to the annual festivities, have come up with their own ways of coping. A sheriff in Bay County, Florida even designed a "beach jail" for partiers who became too rowdy.

"What we've built looks like two dog kennels with rubber flooring," the sheriff explained. "You're talking about two million people coming through our area in a 47-day period. And they did not come to go to church."

Without question, spring break can be an adventure. But as the nostalgic have noted, it's also a fleeting thing. Once you graduate, you most likely feel too old to fly to Daytona Beach and do jello shots.

"After college, you can't go to spring break anymore," one former reveler told The New York Times. "It's no longer socially acceptable. When it's done, it's done, and — at least for you — it's not coming back."

After looking through these vintage spring break photos from the 1980s and 1990s, peruse some of the hottest fashion trends from the 1990s. Or, enjoy these photos of '90s grunge that capture the era of Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
Jaclyn Anglis
Jaclyn is the senior managing editor at All That's Interesting. She holds a Master's degree in journalism from the City University of New York and a Bachelor's degree in English writing and history (double major) from DePauw University. She is interested in American history, true crime, modern history, pop culture, and science.
Cite This Article
Fraga, Kaleena. "45 Retro Images That Capture America’s Wild Love Affair With Spring Break." AllThatsInteresting.com, September 12, 2023, https://allthatsinteresting.com/vintage-spring-break-photos. Accessed April 20, 2024.