What happens on spring break

Last week our family managed to take a three-day getaway during Gwinnett County Public Schools’ official spring break.

We spent the rain-soaked time relaxing in a cabin in Highlands, N.C., where we escaped during the pandemic in 2021. This year we ate in restaurants, shopped in downtown Highlands and nearby Cashiers, grilled out, played games, watched movies, read and generally relaxed. It was a decidedly family friendly mini-vacation bearing no resemblance to the stereotypical college spring break of lore.

The Wallace family on the porch of a cabin in Highlands, NC
The Wallace crew highly recommend relaxing at Five Apple Farm in Highlands, NC, if you need a spring break getaway. For the record, there are no wet t-shirt contests.

Part of that lore was a travel piece I wrote for The Macon Telegraph way back in 1996 when I was a cub reporter. It was the height of the college spring break phenomenon at Panama City Beach, Florida, and MTV was broadcasting shows live from PCB during the college spring break season in March and early April.

My story for The Telegraph was part travelog, part service journalism. It was meant to appeal to those considering going on spring break to Panama City Beach as well as inform those who would never go but wanted to know what it was like. It appeared in the special Monday feature section I was coordinating for Generation X readers named “Tel X.” The audience for the Tel X section was young adults who were abandoning newspaper readership in droves. The enterprise attempted to provide content twentysomethings might find compelling and useful. Spoiler alert: Tel X did not reverse that trend. It lasted about a year.

Cover of the Macon Telegraph Tel X feature section from April 1, 1996
I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “How could this type of jazzy design and compelling newspaper coverage NOT inspire a generation to become regular readers of The Macon Telegraph?”

I don’t remember how I got the idea but it was an eye-opening and exhausting experience. It had mostly faded in my memory until I recently found the story in my basement archives of old Tel X sections and Macon Telegraph story clips. Rereading the piece invoked a few chuckles and some winces.

The executive summary of the story is that college students went to Panama City Beach to party.

The details of the story revealed that the “party” was not nearly as glamorous in real life as it was on MTV.

Upon checking into the hotel I had been directed to by a newspaper colleague at The Panama City News Herald, I immediately found six guys from Georgia Southern who allowed me to join their group for the weekend. They gave me permission to use their names and print exactly what I saw.

“Dude! This is awesome! It’s like ‘Real World’ but for the newspaper. We’re going to be famous!” one of them enthused.

(For those who may not remember, “The Real World” was one of the first reality shows on television appearing on MTV with the opening lines, “This is the true story of seven strangers picked to live in a house, work together and have their lives taped — to find out what happens when people stop being polite and start getting real.”)

There’s famous and then there’s Macon Telegraph Monday Tel X edition famous. So, yeah, not that famous. I’m sure their parents read the piece with great interest.

I will refrain from reprinting the entire story here, but I will give you the opening graph to set the scene: 

Tel X coordinator Lance Wallace spent the weekend on spring break at Panama City Beach to see what happens when young adults from across the country gather to cut loose. PANAMA CITY BEACH – A white shoe polish sign on a Honda hatchback from Georgia sums up the spring break attitude… “Spring Break: Get tan, get drunk, get laid, but not necessarily in that order.” For college students, spring break presents an opportunity and excuse to vent all of their anxieties and frustrations.”

The story included timed dispatches like this: “Friday, 5:42 p.m. Donald Hansil and Stephen Clark pile into the hotel elevator, each clutching a Natural Light and an empty ice chest. They’re in search of an ice machine that hasn’t already been plundered… After scouring the entire hotel for ice, it was 15 feet from their room.”

Other highlights included beach volleyball matches, a bikini contest at Club La Vela, dinner at Hooters, being summoned to the stage by a female rap artist and miraculously incurring no additional damage charges for their room upon checkout. They had crammed 12 people in a room for eight to keep their costs down. For the record, I did not stay in their room, and I left them each night about 2:30 a.m. Even at 25, I could not keep up.

I have never been a partier. My visitation to that scene was like an anthropologist conducting research in a remote jungle village. It gave me enough distance to be objective, and I was not tempted to join in. I merely observed and captured such moments as this: “The group is beginning to look haggard. Steve explains how difficult the room situation has become. Jeff says as long as everyone’s drinking, people get along. Shower time is especially complicated  – 12 people, one shower.”

As I drove away from Panama City Beach on that Monday morning in mid-March 1996, I resolved that if I ever had offspring and they ever asked to go to Panama City Beach with their college buddies for spring break, I would advise against it.

So far that’s one parenting resolution I’ve managed to stick to.

What are your memorable spring break experiences? Maybe you don’t want to put it out for the internet, but if you are willing to risk it, leave a comment below and join the conversation.

Old school spring break

The Wallaces in West Palm Beach
The Wallaces in West Palm Beach, Fla., on spring break. Bob Perkins photo

Growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth, I can’t remember a single spring break vacation. That’s not to say we didn’t have any. I just can’t remember them. We were content to have a week off school, sleep late, watch cartoons and play outside. 

Now, it’s a different story. Spring break isn’t just for college students anymore. Families experience peer pressure to hit the road, too.  

An AOL travel survey this year revealed that 60 percent of people traveling during spring break will spend from $500 to $2,000. That’s more than my parents spent on spring break travel in my 18 years of living at home. 

The same survey showed 75 percent were staying in the U.S. with Florida the top destination. I can attest to the validity of this. I file this dispatch from West Palm Beach where we are wrapping up a week-long trip to the Sunshine State. The trip down I-75 was crowded with fellow Atlantans escaping the city for warmer climate, beaches and theme parks. Free investment tip: invest in Disney stock.

Video game fishing
Barron and PawPaw get in the only kind of fishing they could during Tuesday's rain.

But our spring break plans were modest this year: a visit to my parents in Central Florida, a day at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure in Orlando (thanks to the generosity of friends who provided us with complimentary passes for the whole family), and a day of fishing with PawPaw.  We rounded out the week with a visit to Atlanta ex patriot friends Bob and Faith Perkins who provided quintessential South Florida hospitality: good food, beautiful weather and a day at the beach.

What I learned from this year’s edition of the now time-honored travel rites of spring is that old school wins.

Universal was fun and memorable but probably overwhelming to our two-year-old son who capped off the night by throwing up. And when a day of rain and thunderstorms postponed our fishing trip by a day, playing card games with their grandparents produced more laughs than the video games – even video game fishing.

Barron's first bass
Barron catches his first bass -- the non-virtual kind.

We had a great time at an impromptu campfire, roasting marshmallows and making s’mores. The older boys experienced absolute delight fishing in the breezy Florida sunshine with their grandfather. My five-year-old was so excited he couldn’t stop talking – before, during and after. My oldest hauled in his first bass, a 12-incher we had to throw back because of state law. For those of you who care about that sort of thing, he caught it on an 8-inch, Zoom Finesse watermelon seed worm. He was proud, but his daddy and granddaddy were even more proud.

And a day at the beach — digging a big pit, boogie boarding in the Atlantic, collecting shells and trying fruitlessly to send a Portuguese Man-of-War back to sea — proved more fun than avoiding a mechanical shark at Universal.

For authentic fun in the New South, mix in a little of the tried-and-true to make lasting memories. The Great Outdoors are a better incubator for quality family time than manufactured settings. And in an era of rediscovered austerity, it’s a better value, too.