Palm Springs, Calif. — It wasn’t that long ago this city of aging snowbirds fought back a rising tide of scantily clad college students with the ultimate spring break buzz kill: no thongs, no amplified music and no dancing.
How a troubled economy can change things.
Reeling from the recession, the city’s tourism bureau this spring sent a text message to 55,000 college kids — “Skip Cabo, come to Palm Springs” — and students are once again flocking to the ritzy desert oasis better known for its golf courses and gated retirement communities.
Although the nearest beach is more than two hours away, the pitch appealed to students who said they were spooked by reports of drug violence in Mexico, a perennial spring break favorite.
“I’d rather be safe,” said Marissa Klei, whose spring break tour company switched to Palm Springs from San Felipe, in Baja California, at the last minute.
“We weren’t at the beach and there weren’t as many people, but it was still chill,” said Klei, a sophomore at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. “We hung out at the pool. There were lots of good people, and the weather was so nice.”
That’s the kind of buzz Palm Springs hopes will spread among college students as it warily wades back into the spring break tourism niche for the first time in nearly 20 years.
“Palm Springs practically invented spring break … and it’s back!” blares a Web site promoting deals to college students.
More than 2,000 revelers on spring break tours will rotate through a Holiday Inn on the outskirts of town before the six-week season ends in mid-April, and dozens of independent groups have booked rooms at the 25 hotels offering students reduced midweek rates, according to spring break promotion companies and city tourism officials.
On a recent morning at the Holiday Inn, 250 students were recovering from the previous day of debauchery, which included tequila races, beer pong, an evening dance and a “king and queen of the beach contest” that ended with one female contestant stripping in front of hundreds of poolside revelers.
“It was real fun, from what I remembered,” said a hung-over John Gebhardt, 19, as his friend loaded an autographed beer bong into his car trunk. “A whole bunch of people came from all different schools (and) stayed together partying. It was sick.”
Gebhardt’s wild week was a glimpse of the Palm Springs of the past, when it attracted crowds of students after World War II that multiplied yearly until the city started cracking down in the late 1980s.
In 1986, at the height of the revelry, the Palm Springs jail was packed with inebriated students, and police marched arm-in-arm to sweep throngs of rioting, bottle-throwing partiers off the downtown thoroughfare.
In 1991, then-Mayor Sonny Bono helped pass the city’s now-famous anti-thong ordinance to end the annual spring break tradition of women wearing cheek-baring bikinis as they circled downtown by motorcycle.
Today, Palm Springs hopes its newfound push for the 18- to 25-year-old demographic can balance the excess of years past with the desperate need for tourist dollars. The city thinks it can welcome the students while using the old ordinances and better planning to rein in bad behavior.
For now, most of the students are sequestered at the Holiday Inn, where a spring break promotion company has booked most of the rooms for several weeks solid and provides in-house entertainment. Students staying at upscale downtown resorts have arrived in smaller groups and are more low-key — a trend the city prefers.