Where Spring Breaks Eternal
Where Spring Breaks Eternal
It’s only 20 miles from Southwest Florida International Airport to the Lani Kai Island Resort on Fort Myers Beach, but on the last Tuesday in March it takes more than an hour to get there. Beach traffic is already thick at noon, and we slow to a crawl as we approach the bridge to Estero Island. Of course, most people come to the beach to slow down—but spring break is more about speeding up in a new direction, abandoning daily life in favor of having as much fun as possible. As soon as you get over that damn bridge.
I’m not 100-percent confident about my spring-break skills; my suitcase doesn’t even contain a swimsuit. At least I had the wherewithal to pack a tube of SPF 50 Hawaiian Tropic along with my jean shorts last night. I’m here with photographer Eva O’Leary, who is 28 to my 42. We’re well out of college, but like most spring-breakers since the beginning of time, we’re fleeing the endless snowstorms of the wintry north—in our case, New York City—and I can feel the tension in my shoulders ease as pastel bungalows and T-shirt shops appear on the other side of the bridge.
In 1978, the year the Lani Kai was built, Fort Lauderdale was the spring-break capital of Florida, attracting college students by the hundreds of thousands to engage in the sort of performative partying popularized by the Porky’s and National Lampoon movies. Across the state, on the Gulf Coast, Fort Myers Beach was still a relatively blank canvas. It had just 9,000 permanent residents and seven miles of beach, which drew another 9,000 tourists yearly—families seeking seashells and budget travel, rather than rowdy coeds hell-bent on bacchanalia.
Bob and Grace Conidaris, a married couple from New York, scooped up a 2.7-acre swathe of pristine beachfront property on which to build their family-run resort. The Lani Kai didn’t set out to become a spring-break destination. The Conidarises started by catering to families and adult tourists, like everyone else in the area, but by the early 1990s, spring-break spots like Fort Lauderdale and Daytona Beach were cracking down on college students. That’s when Bob Conidaris decided to take in the kids. He’d offer them the sort of party they could no longer find elsewhere, a mix of family fun and beach games and raunchy hijinks, drink specials, and the freedom to do whatever they wanted—within reason.
Since the Lani Kai’s opening, both spring break and college students have changed dramatically: legal medical marijuana has replaced illicit joints on the beach, and vape pens are more popular than cigarettes. The college students are still drinking plenty, but they’re more careful about having their pictures taken while doing keg stands. In the 45 days between late February and early April each year, at least 100,000 of them pass through the resort’s property.
What is spring break? The concept has always been murky. It’s a last hurrah before settling down; a whatever-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas sort of legitimized debauchery; a time and place to break free from the pressures of high-school or college life; a hedonistic (and capitalistic) supply-and-demand cycle. It’s part cultural myth, part farce, part plain old vacation. Its pleasures often seem to transcend age, race, class, geography, and personality type.
It’s fun. Or is it? Perhaps it’s the vacation equivalent of fast food: tasty but ultimately something you need to recover from or quit altogether. Maybe it’s a manifestation of our obsession with youth, our fear of aging and death. An opportunity to behave badly without repercussions. Or is spring break a valuable, fleeting moment during which you might be who you really are, or who you really want to be?
Eva and I have five days at the Lani Kai. Maybe we’ll never want to leave.
Day 1: Tuesday
Our Lyft driver pulls up to the Lani Kai, which is friendlier than I expected: very Florida, very lived-in, with plenty of colorful flair. Homespun murals by a local artist stretch across its six floors on the street-facing side of the hotel. As we approach, I spot an American flag painted above a tropical scene that’s closer to the Lani Kai’s Hawaiian namesake—a white-sand beach near Honolulu, the name of which means “heavenly sea”—than anything in southwest Florida. The Lani Kai is one of the larger properties on Estero Boulevard, across the street from a 7-Eleven and its own overflow parking lot, where local sheriffs maintain three reserved spots at all times. (The police also keep a paddy wagon in the 7-Eleven parking lot, just in case—but I’m assured that they’ve chosen the spot for its proximity to the beach, not to the Lani Kai.)
We drag our bags inside. There’s no glitzy lobby or besuited doorman—just a simple front desk up a flight of stairs. Behind the clerk hangs a large photograph of the Conidaris family: Bob and Grace surrounded by their eight kids, everyone smiling for the camera. From the feathered hair and striped polo shirts, I’d date it to the 1980s. On either side of the photograph there are T-shirts for sale: “I PARTIED AT SPRING BREAK CENTRAL—DRINK. PARTY. SLEEP. REPEAT.” For $20, I can’t say I’m not tempted.
It’s only noon and our room’s not ready yet, so we wait outside at one of the resort’s four restaurants, the Sabal Palm, and let the sun warm our skin. I watch a yellow “Spring Break 2018" flag wave in the distance and peruse a drink menu that offers a $2.50 happy hour from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. and shots with names like “Gummy Bear,” “Cinnamon Toast Crunch,” “Piece of Ass,” and “Liquid Marijuana.”
Below us, on the ground floor, a wooden stage stretches into the sand. This is where the Cincinnati Firemen, a group of up to 30 Ohio-based firemen and EMTs who’ve been vacationing on Fort Myers Beach since 1987, perform. In 1996, they began putting on raucous, crowd-pleasing variety shows to raise funds for local charities; in 2010, they moved their performances to the Lani Kai. Alas, the Firemen went home last week, and the separate booty-shake competition—which, during spring break, attracts women and men to do exactly what you think for a $100 prize—is over for the year, due to the large number of high schoolers who’ve descended for vacation.
As we order lunch, I hear the unmistakable sound of Pitbull emanating from the DJ booth. On the beach, people are playing “life-size beer pong”: trash cans are painted like red Solo cups, and teams take turns trying to throw beach balls into them. It’s reminiscent of Dirty Dancing’s Kellerman’s resort in the Catskills, but with lots of bare skin and plenty of tattoos.
I’d heard that students hang their school flags over the beach-facing balconies, creating a United Nations of Midwestern and mid-Atlantic colleges. I look up to check—there are a few!—and that’s when I notice an older man seated behind us, wearing a neat button-down and jeans. I suspect it’s Bob Conidaris, who everyone calls “Mr. C.” He’s got the tan skin of a Florida local, a shock of white hair, and a contagious smile. For a second, I feel like I’m in the presence of spring-break royalty.
Melissa Schneider, Lani Kai’s marketing director, comes down to say hello and introduces us: it is indeed Mr. C, who grew up with five brothers and sisters in Brooklyn and once made extra money for his single mom as a shoeshine boy. As an adult, he got into the contracting business in New York, then Florida. Now, at the age of 86, he still makes near-daily appearances at the Lani Kai, where most of his children and 25 grandchildren have worked. “I love having people from New York,” he tells me and Eva. His wife Grace died ten years ago, but her presence can be felt throughout the hotel: there’s a picture of the couple in the elevator, and, near one of the downstairs bars, the red fabric tops of wooden glider chairs imported from Amish country are inscribed with “R.C. LOVES G.C.,” in a heart.
We’re informed that our room is ready. In the hallway, we’re greeted by a painted alligator with open jaws, part of a marshy Everglades-like mural. Our room is clean and bright, with comfortable beds and walls painted the same sea-foam green I adored in middle school. I flip over a painting of a parrot to see that someone has written “SPRING BREAK” on the back in dark ink.
My favorite part of the room is the private balcony, a window onto whatever’s happening on the beach below. I take some notes: Bikinis are in. Thongs are super-in. Bikini tops with sleeves are a thing. People love volleyball! Garth Brooks’s “Friends in Low Places” is still being played in public. I notice that people do take their phones to the beach; the women use the sides of their bikini bottoms as makeshift holsters. “You’ve got to see this!” I yell to Eva, who’s fiddling with her camera. We stand on the balcony and stare, taking in families, high schoolers standing around awkwardly, college-aged women photographing one another’s butts and their own faces, leathery-skinned locals, and retirees.
We have dinner on the top floor at the Island View, the hotel’s least spring-break-like restaurant, where students sometimes come for date night. We get to talking to our waiter, who recommends we day-drink with college students for a real spring-break feel, then brings over another staffer to share stories. We learn about a woman who visited the hotel with her family for her 50th birthday and took some spring-breakers back to her room to have sex. Her relatives walked in on the group, assumed the woman was being raped, and called the cops. No charges were pressed, but “they checked out the next day.” The resort is a “weird place,” these staffers say, but in a way that indicates love rather than derision.
Day 2: Wednesday
I wake and think about whether it’s possible to day-drink with college students without dying. I suspect the answer is no. It’s another perfect beach day, and even though we haven’t been here 24 hours, I’ve settled into this life, watching the sand from the balcony. Workers put out beach chairs, and a few early-morning joggers speed by. The spring-breakers, I imagine, are still in their beds.
Downstairs, in the lobby, I consider the contract the hotel makes spring-breakers sign when they first check in: “THIS HOTEL WILL EVICT YOU AND THERE WILL BE NO REFUNDS UNDER THESE CIRCUMSTANCES IF YOUR PROOF OF AGE IS NOT VALID AND CERTAIN,” it warns. Further down the page, there’s a request that all “partying” be discontinued after 10 p.m., and a notice that rooms will be inspected for damages. In our room, I’d seen a list detailing what you’d have to pay to rectify harm: a table lamp will run you $50; a washcloth, $2; a dresser knob, $20; a door, $400; and artwork, $150. I wonder if they know about the spring-break parrot.
“We need to get into one of the rooms,” Eva is saying, texting some college students we’d met the day before. My gut tells me that in order to win an invitation to day-drink, one must already be drinking, but when we hear partying next door, Eva goes over with her camera anyway. “No photos,” a frat boy declares; I can hear his voice from inside our room. “We’re really not about that.” I feel the sting of rejection, and so does Eva. “They were so mean,” she says when she returns.
We head to the beach, where some high schoolers tell us they’ve heard staffers talking about how sick they are of cleaning up puke. (There’s no puke to be seen.) From yesterday, I already know that in a few hours, college students and 20-somethings will emerge from their rooms to beat back hangovers with some hair of the dog. Everyone will leave the beach around 6 or 7 p.m. and return to their rooms to “rest” and dress for the night. Then the nocturnal fun will begin. There’s something irresistible about the cycle, like the pull of the moon.
We stop to talk to a retired couple. She’s sunbathing in a one-piece and he’s reading the paper. Residents of Fort Myers, they come here once a week for the sun and the waves. (Plus, they get their parking validated after they eat breakfast at the hotel.) When I ask about how crazy spring break can get, the man laughs: “I’ve never seen anything to tell Mom about, but I probably wouldn’t tell Mom anyway.”
A few paces away, Renee, 17, is a high-school student from Illinois on spring break with her friend. They’re just here to tan, though Renee’s on Tinder too (“to meet people”); she’ll be attending college in Florida in the fall. Her mom is their chaperone, and she joins in, asking the girls if they would have talked to us if we’d been men. “Don’t be stupid,” she reminds Renee.
On stage, the DJ acts as the resort’s emcee, directing line dances, announcing limbo and tug-of-war competitions, and calling out the winners of the beanbag toss, which goes on throughout the day. I notice that he plays many of the same songs he played yesterday. He’ll probably play them again tomorrow.
The strongman and strongwoman competitions happen between 4 and 5 p.m. Participants hold buckets filled with sand out to their sides, and the one who keeps his or her arms outstretched the longest wins. People perch on picnic tables, watching the games and idly dancing, having drinks with friends, meeting strangers. I notice a security guard in a red polo shirt and straw hat holding a girl’s beer over the sand, as if about to pour it out. She gestures wildly and makes a face. He gives it back to her. She chugs it and hands him the can, which he throws away.
A little later, I introduce myself. The security guard has a muscular build and an earpiece hidden under his floppy hat. He’s been at the Lani Kai for six months, he says; he also does security at the hospital. As we talk, he scans the shoreline. I ask him about the girl and the can of beer. “Her sister was underage and had the beer, so I told the older one she had to drink it,” he explains.
I ask what it’s like to be security at the resort, expecting either a canned response or a shrug, but he smiles wide. “We protect the guests from other people,” he says, “and we protect them from themselves.” Once, I hear, a man dropped his phone onto one of the hotel’s low rooftops, tried to get it back by climbing off his balcony, fell, slid down the roof, and landed on a cop. A thief jumped off a balcony with someone’s valuables the week before Eva and I arrived; a year prior, on Memorial Day weekend, a shooting left two people injured. If you’re caught with hard drugs, or you steal or cause bodily harm, you’re pretty much banned for life. But if you get drunk and do something stupid, chances are the Lani Kai will take you back.
Something comes in through my security friend’s earpiece and he’s got to run, so Eva and I walk over to the handful of independently-owned shops on the ground level of the hotel. We’re in the land of shirts that say things like, “I’M NO GYNECOLOGIST BUT I’LL TAKE A LOOK”; “THIS IS NOT A BEER GUT: IT’S A PROTECTIVE COATING FOR MY ROCK-HARD ABS”; and “MY PARENTS SAID I COULD BE ANYTHING … SO I BECAME AN ASSHOLE.” A guy named Oren has been running this shop for 17 years. This week he’s put away the “dirtier” slogans for the benefit of the high schoolers. Down the way, an ice-cream parlor features flavors that include “Lost Their Cookies and Cream,” “Blacked Out Raspberry,” and “Questionable Choices Vanilla.”
I pause to take it all in, the perfect blend of wholesome and debauched. Around us, scantily clad adults are drinking and college students and high schoolers are roving in groups, while little kids frolic on a playground in front of the ice-cream place. “Why do spring-breakers love the Lani Kai?” I ask Oren, and his answer is immediate: “We let them do a lot of things they can’t do anywhere else.” Then he mentions an incident in which some college-aged guests soaped up the walkway on one of the hotel floors so they could slide down it, buck naked.
We meet Dylan, who’s not on spring break but is skipping his college classes to be here with his girlfriend, Kendall—she and her family come every year. Lakitah, a college student from Illinois, is walking around on her own in a skull-print bikini. “Spring break is chill,” she says. “Tonight we’re just going back to the crib.”
Down the beach, a boat with “TRUMP” written down its side has pulled in close to the shore. From the sand, people stare. So far, my time here has been eerily devoid of politics. I expect the boat to prompt some kind of reaction, but nothing happens. People sip daiquiris. The waves crash.
Day 3: Thursday
Eva and I have breakfast on the Sun Deck, as usual. Hungover guys in hoodies cluster around a nearby table, hunched and sleepy. “Should we go say hello, maybe interview them?” I ask Eva, and she laughs as we sip our coffees. We’re still stung from the rejection of the other day. In the distance, I hear Pitbull.
When we get down to the beach around noon, we talk to a group of 12 high-school seniors from Indiana. They’re all guys and are here with their families, but have mostly been left alone to do their own thing. Curfew is 12:30, but last night they were on the beach until 1 a.m. and their parents were fine with that. They’re not here to get into trouble, they say—that’s not their style. Good teens! I think.
The games commence. The winner of the beanbag toss gets a free drink, and the DJ starts hyping the next round, calling out to some competitors who’ve gone missing: “If Chrissy and Derek aren’t hooking up, come to the beanbag competition or you’ll forfeit. Though it might be worth it!” Next up is the balloon toss. At least 60 people throw water balloons back and forth; the last two with an intact balloon chest-bump and run off to collect their prize Rum Runner cocktails. The strongman win goes to an impossibly bronzed, silver-haired guy with a gold chain who dances hypnotically with his sand-filled buckets. I see my security guard friend. “I took 11 IDs last night,” he tells me. “Someone offered $247 to get theirs back.”
“What did you do?” I ask.
“Cut it up,” he says.
Eva waves me over to a high-school girl with braces and her friend; they’ve Ubered here from Sanibel because it was “boring.” They don’t hesitate to ask if we’ll buy them booze, which they appear to already be drinking. They’re slurring their words. Bad teens! I think, and feel exceptionally mom-like when I tell them no.
As a teen, I would steal occasional beers from my parents and sometimes stay out past curfew, but I never would have had the nerve to ask strange adults to buy me booze. These teens both thrill and scare me; their fearlessness may be ill-advised, but they really aren’t worried about what anyone else thinks, at least not in the moment. And maybe that’s what spring break is.
Eva and I decide to turn in early. We’ll reserve our energies for a last big night, we promise each other. She puts in her earplugs and is out. I’m kept awake by slamming doors and shouting people. I feel my inner grown-up complaining as a party rages next door. But it’s all my fault: this is what happens when you don’t day-drink.
Day 4: Friday
Spring break’s American roots reach back to 1936, when Sam Ingram, a swim coach at Colgate University in upstate New York, brought his team to Fort Lauderdale over Christmas to train in the only Olympic-sized pool in the state, the Casino Pool. When the students returned to school, praising the warm weather and white-sand beaches, word began to spread. College students glommed on to the trend of heading south in the years that followed, and eventually break shifted from Christmas to Easter.
The 1960 film Where the Boys Are, in which four college women go to Fort Lauderdale to experiment with sex and men, further commoditized the experience. In the decades that followed, hundreds of thousands of college students came to Florida for their weeks off in March and April. Predictably, things got out of hand. Beach alcohol bans and other crackdowns have dampened the appeal of spring-break haunts like Panama City Beach, where a gang rape occurred in 2015; Palm Springs, following a riot in 1986; and Daytona Beach, from which MTV broadcast a full week of live coverage in 1986 to mark the start of their long-running Spring Break franchise. Florida is now a state where any number of lawyers specializing in “spring-break crimes” are just a Google search away, and beach jails dot the sand.
Then there’s the Lani Kai, which has been a relatively safe space for partiers for 25 years and counting. How does Mr. C do it?
Over lunch, he credits his late wife for the family’s move to Fort Myers—a place she loved—as well as the overall concept and design of the hotel. Charity work and community outreach are a key part of the resort, he says; Grace ran a program for 20 years that brought needy kids to the Lani Kai to celebrate Christmas, with the local sheriff acting as Santa.
Josh, one of the 25 Conidaris grandkids, brings us our food, and Mr. C shows us the best way to dip shrimp into the Mexican Shrimp Cocktail sauce (twice for ideal coverage). The hotel has always been a family affair, he tells us. Five of Mr. C’s kids met their partners at the Lani Kai and were married here.
I ask: why become a haven for spring-breakers? Why court that sort of trouble at all? “They’re the future,” Mr. C says. When the hotel started hosting spring-breakers, it employed ten security guards; now it has at least 18. But “these are good kids,” Mr. C clarifies. “Every once in a while, you get somebody that takes it too far, and you just get rid of them. Girls Gone Wild, they tried to come here, and we had none of that.” I ask about the booty-shake contest, and he laughs: “You gotta give them something.” Another thing the resort provides: a cheap all-you-can-eat brunch, because the kids “do not eat! They mostly want to drink. I want them to get at least one good meal.” Watching MTV’s Spring Break series from the comfort of my parents’ den in the ’90s, I never thought about those gyrating college kids getting a square meal, or who was keeping them safe.
Later in the day, a text comes in from Eva: “Omg there was a girl fight. Can u bring my cam?” I grab her bag and rush downstairs. A handful of teenagers at the Casablanca Café are asking for ice to soothe pepper-sprayed eyes and faces. “Wait,” I tell them, “you should use milk instead!” The clerk passes over a glass of milk, no charge, and they take it to the restroom. I ask another girl, her black eye swelling, what happened. “We were on the beach and there was a fight and the cops just pepper-sprayed all of us,” she says.
It turns out the fight took place down the beach from the Lani Kai, in front of the Beach Pub. We walk over to find a tent where teenagers have congregated; by the water, a few cops watch warily. A policeman tells me high schoolers have the day off for Easter in Lee County, “and anytime kids get together, stuff happens.” When a fight broke out and they wouldn’t let the cops in to stop it, “we pepper-sprayed them.” He says this sort of thing used to happen at the Lani Kai, too, “but the security wouldn’t put up with it, so it moved down here.”
Back at the resort, the DJ is announcing an upcoming Easter-egg hunt. A woman wins the limbo competition and performs a Rod Tidwell–style celebratory dance. I notice how quickly the energy changes as I wander toward the pier, in the opposite direction from the Beach Pub. It’s quieter. People are mostly sitting by the water. Nobody’s drinking daiquiris from plastic cups, at least not publicly. In between this low-key family scene and teens getting pepper-sprayed, there’s the protected decadence of the Lani Kai, a spring break that’s not broken.
It’s Friday night, and we’re within the bounds of happy hour. “Blurred Lines” is playing, again. Two ladies with ornate back tattoos pose for a picture, and when I ask what brings them here, one says, “Guys buy me drinks.” As if on cue, a sweaty white guy in sunglasses walks over and says, “Want a drink? I’m buying.” The beach air is redolent of coconut sunscreen and the not-unpleasant odor of boat fuel. We prepare for our final evening of spring break.
Eva and I head to Club Ohana to see A200, a Fort Myers–based cover band. The security guard checks our IDs and fastens bracelets around our wrists. I notice cops hanging out near the bathrooms and the entrances to the club, where stools are chained to the wall. I wonder what the hotel charges to replace a stool.
The night starts out slow, but suddenly two sisters from Iowa are going wild on the dance floor. “We’re kicking ass and taking names!” they tell me; the older one is 72. A young woman in a white romper dances with a guy in a wheelchair, and I can’t tell if they just met or have known each other for years. People of various ages gyrate to Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” as the lead singer parades around with a guitar strapped to his body. My security guard buddy, the hardest-working guy at the hotel, rushes by. He’s been on for 22 hours, and won’t leave until 7 a.m.
At the outside bar, I meet Christian, a 25-year-old from Oslo wearing a neon Fort Myers sweatshirt. His blond brother, Martin, 22, joins us; he’s got a cast on his leg, which he broke while trying to jump a fence drunk. Tired of hanging out with their grandparents on vacation, they’ve come to the Lani Kai for “that spring-break experience.” “We’re not volleyball players, and we’ve been playing volleyball for, like, three hours,” Martin says. “I have so many more Snapchat friends after this.” Later, as Eva roams the beach taking pictures of revelers in the dark, I join Chris and Martin in Club Ohana. They’re trying to convince me to go to another spot for karaoke, or maybe to a house party at their grandparents’. I’m tempted, but good sense prevails. “Are you always like this?” Chris asks. “So intense about your job?” “Pretty much,” I say, and the brothers order an Uber to take them to the next party. Eva and I are back in our room by 1 a.m., but the revelry continues around us. The sound of other people partying has become a kind of lull, like the waves of the Gulf, soothing me to sleep.
Day 5: Saturday
It’s overcast and cloudy. Rain has fallen overnight, but there are still small groups of people on the sand below. I make myself one last hotel-room coffee and think about what I’m going back to. What’s happening in New York City, the greater world, in politics, in the news? Eva and I keep telling people at the hotel that we wish we could stay forever, and while part of me does indeed yearn for perpetual spring break—a spring break of the soul—I’m also eager to get back to regular life.
At breakfast on the Sun Deck, Eva and I alternate between staring blankly at each other and at our phones. The patio furniture is damp, but we plop down anyway. I notice the sisters from Iowa near us. I’m too exhausted to talk to them, and maybe they feel the same way.
Reporting a piece about spring break, it turns out, is not unlike spring-breaking: you mingle with strangers, you talk to anyone who will listen, you play some games, you get some free drinks, and you stay out late, or as late as you can. And then, in the end, you go home, which is what makes it a break in the first place. Eva decides to head to the airport right after breakfast, even though her flight’s not until the evening. “If I can’t get on an earlier flight, I’ll just sit there and work,” she says. “It’s time to get out of here.”
An hour later, I wait outside the hotel for my ride. My parents are picking me up, which seems appropriate, and driving me across the state so we can fit in a short visit before I go back to New York City. I feel younger, somehow, but also older. I’m going to miss this place, the spring break I never had as a middle-of-the-road adolescent.
I snap a picture of a black cotton dress hanging nearby that declares “I SURVIVED SPRING BREAK,” and marvel again at how this place is both homey and exotic, smutty and sweet. Like an insect cased in amber, the Lani Kai remains something of an untouched gem, pure in its impurity. And that’s what makes it, for better or worse, a spring-break touchstone. You can come here and behave like a 21-year-old again, no matter how old you actually are—as long as you’ve got proper ID. Two guys walk by as I ready myself to go, and I hear one bemoan the lack of sun. The other promises, “It’ll come back. It always does.”
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