Spring break is king in Panama City Beach.
So much so, in fact, that tourism officials don’t usually advertise ahead of the busy March season. Why bother, when restaurants, bars and hotels are going to fill up anyway with throngs of college students?
But in the aftermath of an especially crime-marred spring break last year, city and county governments have written new laws designed to dampen the party. And in an effort to replace the many college students whom the laws are designed to discourage, Visit Panama City Beach is reaching out to families in an advertising campaign that launched this month.
“We just want families to know all the great things that are going on for them,” Visit Panama City Beach CEO Dan Rowe said, citing the new, family-friendly ordinances.
Most notably, the ordinances, passed last June and July, forbid the possession or consumption of alcohol during March along an 18.5-mile-long section of the Panama City-area’s famed white sand beach. In addition, the bars’ last call will be 2 a.m. during March, as opposed to the usual 4 a.m. Possession and consumption of alcohol is also banned in commercial parking lots during March.
The laws were a direct response to a 2015 spring break that went so awry in the Florida Panhandle destination that it received national news.
In one much-publicized incident, video captured then-Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott being cut in the face during an altercation outside a nightclub.
Much worse was a shooting of seven people at a house party, several of them Texas A&M students. Three of the victims were critically injured, though no one was killed.
Perhaps more disturbing still was a video that surfaced last April showing an alleged gang rape taking place against an incapacitated woman in view of hundreds of people who did nothing to stop it. Three men were charged with assault in the case, though charges against one of the men were dropped just this week. The other alleged assailants still face felony sexual battery charges.
Those events notwithstanding, passage of the spring break alcohol ban was controversial in Panama City, with opponents mainly arguing that it would hurt business and tourism, local newspapers reported. For example, a group called Citizens United for Panama City Beach, made up largely of hospitality workers, wore “Please save our jobs” T-shirts on the night the city commission took its most pivotal vote on the laws.
Rowe, however, says the laws were needed. And though the ban was enacted to discourage one type of tourist, he believes it creates an opportunity to reach out to another type.
“I think the family experience in March will be enhanced,” Rowe said.
Indeed, Visit Panama City Beach is putting more than $1 million in ad-buy cash behind that bet with its new campaign.
One 30-second advertisement, for example, shows various scenes of young children and families playing on the beach, snorkeling, riding a roller coaster and even clowning playfully at a restaurant. “White sands, turquoise waters and endless possibilities,” the ad concludes. “Plan your spring escape today at visitpanamacitybeach.com.”