13 Mar Kids Gone Crazy: What Really Happens on Spring Break
A large crowd has gathered at a local hotel, the self-proclaimed headquarters for spring break in Cancun, Mexico. There is a buzz of youthful excitement in the air. It’s 3:00 P.M. and teenagers, mostly from high school are swimming up to the pool bar for what is clearly not their first drink of the day. But the main attraction is the bikini contest, a daily entertainment for those staying at the hotel.
Three teenage girls, visibly drunk, are strutting on stage, their bikinis barely covering their tanned and perfect figures. As the hip-hop pulsates in the background, the emcee announces, “It’s time to get wet, girls.” Like a cop trying to control unruly demonstrators, he hoses them down with water, making their bathing suits cling even tighter to their bodies. “Take it off!” he commands next, and, amazingly, they oblige by shedding their suits, energized by the crescendo of hoots and whoops in the audience. Hotel security guards with walkie-talkies strapped to their hips patrol for cameras, destroying the film of anyone who takes a photograph. “Show us some sexual positions!’ the ringmaster barks into the microphone as if beautiful naked girls were not enough to satisfy the Romans watching the sexual gladiators perform. The girls assume various positions, including a simulation of oral sex.
While one might think this was an isolated incident of decadence, similar scenes are being played out at countless other spring-break destinations. Starting in mid-February and ending mid-April, between 170,000 and 200,000 college and high-school students visit Cancun, drawn to the tropical climate, the all-inclusive packages, and clubs that offer all-you-can-drink until dawn. This annual rite of sun, sex and spirits now extends into June, when high-school students take a week all their own during their senior year to celebrate graduation, an excursion often referred to as “grad break.”
“The grad-break industry is definitely growing,” says Joe Bush, vice president of Student Express, a tour agency that has arranged student trips since 1986. “We take approximately 22,000 kids a year for spring break and 8,000 a year for grad break. But our trips are 100 percent different than the college spring break tours.” Bush’s events are targeted toward themes like foam or graffiti parties, where kids write on each other’s T-shirts. “We don’t promote, condone or consume alcohol with the students,” he assures. Many of the trips his agency arranges are to Cancun, where Bush spends five months out of the year as an on-site coordinator. And while stateside destinations such as South Padre Island, Texas, and Panama City, Florida, also attract tens of thousands of spring breakers, Cancun has become the hottest spot for Generation Next for one simple reason: the drinking age, 18, is rarely enforced.
“The majority of spring-break places are about partying, which means a lot of drinking and can also mean sex,” explains Neil Teplica, CEO of whatsgoingon.com, a Web site for events. “Kids can get away with a lot more outside of the United States, so Cancun becomes more about drinking than other places because it’s easier to get into bars.” Factor in the sex-themed contests, booze cruises, and sandy white beaches teaming with adolescents primed for anything, and you have a hormone-infused bacchanalia.
Everything is geared toward drinking down there,” says Adam Salmons, 19, who visited Cancun two summers ago with 40 of his classmates from Marietta, Georgia. “Our tour company gave us wristbands that got us free access to two or three different clubs each night.” Adam also witnessed the infamous girls-gone-wild action that sometimes occurs when too much alcohol is consumed. “The Bartenders would be like, `Free shots for any girl who will take off her top.’ The girls I was with thought it was gross, but the ones who actually did it were so drunk and out of control, they didn’t really care.”
At 11:00 P.M. a long line of eager young patrons snakes around one of the trendiest clubs in town. Those with wristbands, the majority, get waved forward to the bouncers, who search them for firearms and drugs. Those without wristbands pay a $25 cover, but everyone gets as many watered-down drinks as he can toss back. No one is carded.
The hangar-size club is an entertainment phantasmagoria—a combination of Vegas, Mardi Gras and MTV. Balloons and confetti fall from the ceiling, and a constant flow of scantily clad girls and tattooed boys hop on and off the bars and tables, grinding into the nearest groin. One girl does a “booty” dance on the bar, offering her butt for boys to spank. Every four minutes the music changes and a new performer is spotlighted on the platform. A screen drops and clips from the movie The Mask is shown. A masked Jim Carrey look-alike emerges from behind the screen, grabs a rope, and swings Tarzan-style from the platform to the bar. As the song “Tequila” plays in the background, he pours liquor down gape-mouthed patrons like a mother bird feeding its chicks. A bartender jumps onto the bar and pulls a blond girl in a ruby dress, legs akimbo, onto his lap and simulates sexual intercourse.
Clearly, most parents are not willingly allowing their children to enter such a lion’s den of debauchery. In a recent survey of 500 parents conducted by the American Medical Association, more than half of those polled were unaware that tour agencies market spring and grad breaks to college and high-school students as a time for heavy drinking and sex.
For Adam Salmon’s mom, Carol, it was a matter of trust. “My husband and I were pretty much on board from the beginning,” she says of their decision to let their son go on grad break. “Adam has always had a good head on his shoulders. I thought it was something all the kids were doing.” But psychologists caution that no matter how much faith you have in your teenagers, and trust that they will do the right thing, peer pressure almost always trumps parental influence in this situation. Dorothy G. Singer, Ed.D., senior research scientist in the department of psychology at Yale University, says spring break gives children a license of let loose without adult supervision. “Many teenagers experience regret and depression after they come home because, in the sober light of day, they are embarrassed by what they have done,” Dr. Singer points out. “Parents should watch the spring break specials with their sons and daughters and explain that these television shows are edited; you may not be seeing the kids throwing up behind-the-scenes.”
Roni Zehren of Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, agrees, and says she wouldn’t dream of exposing any of her three teenagers to the temptations of beach breaks. “Any parent who would allow a high-school-aged child to go on a grad break is asking for trouble,” she says, “Children at that age still need guidance by their parents. Too much freedom at one time is like a bomb ready to go off.”
It’s a lesson that Jill, who accompanied her daughter and 20 other high-school students to Cancun, learned a little too late. “I was so upset by the bikini contest, I actually cried,” says the Pittsburgh mom, who asked that her last name be withheld. “The kids get up at 10 A.M. and drink all day. Later they go to the clubs and come home at 5:00 in the morning. Last might a fight broke out outside our room. I saw another boy smash a liquor bottle on the pool bar. Several times I looked out onto the beach and saw kids having sex. This is not a high-school experience.”
And while one could reasonably argue that few American teenagers get their introduction to alcohol or sex on a senior trip, the dangers of excessive partying, especially in a foreign country, can be far greater than a bad hangover. While in college, Thomas, now 26, had his drink spiked when he visited a Cancun club with some friends. “I went there with four other guys, and someone slipped a tranquilizer in our drinks,” remembers the San Jose, California, resident. “When I came to, I saw a lot of kids passed out in the back with some of the locals going through their pickets. I fought to stay awake by eating pizza to soak up the drug.”
Glen Keiser, principal officer at the U.S. Consulate in Merida, Mexico, is the man that American tourists call when they get into trouble. He says there were several reported rapes last year during spring break in Cancun, two in which involved Rohypnol or GHB, the so-called date rape drugs. “Excessive drinking makes you vulnerable,” warns Keiser. “Frequently, girls will be walking along the beach late at night, or they will invite someone into their room, or get pulled down an alleyway. We also see kids falling off balconies, crashing mopeds, or waking up in the street without their wallets.”
According to police officer Arturo Roman, there is an average of 25 arrests a night during the student invasion. “The kids urinate in the street, have sex on the beach and fight in the discos,” says Roman, who has been with the Cancun force for five years. “If the kids have a small quantity of drugs, they get fined and put in jail for 36 hours. For large quantities, they go to federal prison. In Cancun, 16-year-olds are considered adults in the eyes of the law.”
And while the police certainly have their hands full keeping disorderly students in line, some have discovered a way of turning these spring flings into a financial windfall. Instead of taking students to a magistrate who either locks them up or fines them $50 to $150, the police will sometimes take them to the nearest ATM machine.
“I knew one guy who was smoking pot with a friend and the cops came over and said, “We’re taking you to jail,” recalls Sam Simon, 18, who went to Cancun last June on a senior trip with students from his high school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “They took the kids into the police car and said, “How much money can you get for us in the next hous? “The kids ended up giving the cops about $400.”
Keiser is well aware of these morditas (“little bites”), and said the Mexican government is making an effort to stop police bribery. “This year we had an increase in the number of extortion cases reported to us,” acknowledges Keiser. “One reason is that there will be a new administration soon, and the police might be worried that there will be a cleanup. We did manage to get some magistrates and police dismissed for shaking people down.
Sadly, some of the reckless behavior that students engage in during their week or carefree partying ends in tragedy. Every year young people jump or fall off balconies to their death, or die from choking on their own vomit while intoxicated. Enrique Minor, M.D., a physician at one of the area hospitals, says he sees up to 40 people a day during spring break with various injuries, dehydration, alcohol poisoning, drug overdose, even coma. “One spring breaker was drinking in the disco and he passed out,” Dr. Minor remembers. “When the ambulance came to pick him up, he was dead.”
Three years ago Nan and Frank Guglielmi of Findley, Ohio, lost their 19-year-old son, Andrew, when he fell from a third-floor balcony in Panama City, Florida, after a day of partying. For 11 days they sat vigil at his hospital bedside. “While we were at the hospital, we saw other children dying. We saw girls who had drugs put in their drinks,” Frank recalls. “Many of the parents never got to see their children before they died. Had we known the kinds of things that went on down there, we would never have let Andrew go.”
In order to avoid tragedies like Andrew Guglielmi’s, J. Edward Hill, M.D., chair of the American Medical Association, says it’s important to talk to your teens about what really goes on during spring and grad breaks—the sexual behavior, the anything-goes attitude, and especially the drinking. “Parents need to discuss the physical and health risks of excessive alcohol consumption,” Dr. Hill says. “Adolescents think they’re indestructible; they don’t comprehend all the dangers involved in excessive drinking.”
Keep in mind, however, that not every teen who goes on one of these trips ends up in the hospital or grave. There are responsible students who simply want to have some fun in the sun, and there are tour agencies that make sure the kids are safe. Ultimately, says Joe Bush of Student Express, it’s up to parents and teenagers to decide their own fate. “If your child is not going to act like a young adult, don’t allow him to go on the trip.”
But while the Guglielmis concede that their son put himself at risk by drinking, they place some of the blame on the media that promote the drink-till-you-drop party spots and those who host these events. They say places like Panama City and Cancun are “high-risk war zones.”
“Parents and students need to recognize that there is a dark side to the spring-break madness they see on MTV,” warns Frank Guglielmi.
Girls Gone Wild—the Shocking Truth
While trailing teenagers at Cancun’s bars, beaches and hotels for this article, I discovered that when it comes to spring break, modesty takes a vacation. Admittedly, I did my share of partying when I was in college. In fact, my generation was the one that turned the word party into verb. But the now-mature mother in me was stunned by the sexually cavalier behavior of many of the young women I saw. All it took was a camera lens and a couple of drinks to get a girl to take off her top, and sometimes more.
At one hotel used as the headquarters for the MTV spring–break specials, I watched as three boys squirted unsuspecting girls with coco butter as they headed toward the beach. Instead of giving the pranksters a verbal beating, the girls, who seemed pleased by this assault, allowed the boys to rub the lotion into their chests. It seemed that the more bawdily the girls behaved, the better. They were considered celebrities and were the ones most likely to be voted Miss Spring Break.
I also discovered that anyone visiting Cancun during spring break season better watch her stop when taking a midnight stroll on the beach. Otherwise, she might trip over bodies in flagrante.
Of course, not everyone embraces this supercharged, lord-of-the-unzipped flies atmosphere. One high-school girl told me she thought the girls who stripped and performed naked for the bikini contests were “gross.” Why, then, are so many girls going wild? In truth, they are probably no different from the teenagers back in my day, and are simply following today’s moral standards. Still, while I understand that teens have never been known for their restraint, especially when life’s a beach, it would be nice if they showed a bit more self-respect and a little less self-exposure.