Spring Break is booming, Manatee businesses say

Herald Staff WritersMarch 12, 2013 

MANATEE -- Florida State University student Taylor Lafon calls Holmes Beach her "home beach."

The Lithia native said she and her friends always visited in high school, and it's now become their spring break meeting point.

On Monday she and her fellow FSU students took to the volleyball courts at the public beach as they welcomed a break from studying.

While many spring breakers don't have a lot of discretionary cash, YOLO Adventures in Cortez is seeing business take off this week now that the spring breakers are flocking to the beach.

Capt. Ryan Davis, 34, a Bradenton native and Bayshore High graduate, founded YOLO Adventures in Cortez in 2005. He is hoping to gross more than $250,000 this year by offering parasailing, sunset cruises on a pontoon boat, jet-skiing, eco-tours, and dolphin watching.

This week may be just the ticket to getting them there as spring breakers, senior skippers and any kid who has a free place to stay, thanks to grandma and grandpa, descends on this barrier island.

Despite the near-record gasoline prices, spring break is one of the biggest travel periods of the year. Not only is it notoriously fun and traditionally the peak of the local high season, but the school break pilgrimage-to-warm-sands is huge for local business, which seems to be on a record-setting pace in the Sunshine State.

Visitors travel from as far away as Canada. But a steady stream of spring breakers also come to these barrier islands from around the state.

Most students, like Rachel Bobish from Anderson University in South Carolina, opt to stay with family members who live in the area.

It is the simple things that satisfy visitors like Bobish, like the warm temperatures and white sand -- both free -- and simple eateries that do not exist in South Carolina, like Beef 'O' Brady's.

Even though students must monitor their spending, parents and family members are typically willing to chip in to make their visiting student's break a great one. Spring break tourism is buoying the bottom lines of the barrier businesses, say tour operators, retailers and beach-related rental agencies.

While expenses are up from a few years ago -- gas prices have skyrocketed and insurance rates are up by "150 percent" -- Davis and his partner Capt. Trish Senna are successful, with seven seasonal employees at YOLO and a life on the water that many only dream about.

Jim Brady, owner of West Coast Surf Shop, has seen it all during the 49 years he has owned and operated his 2,500-square-foot Holmes Beach store on Gulf Drive. Spring break is "just starting," Brady said.

Brady said business "has picked up since last year, and is now right where it should be," He estimates his shop will generate about $1 million in sales this year. Owning his location is a "huge advantage," he says. Although the 65-year-old Texas native and 1966 Manatee High School graduate no longer surfs, he says "my grandkids all do very well in surfing competitions."

Retailer Lois Manza, owner of Creations by L on Holmes Beach, a six-year-old bead and jewelry business, reports that her business has picked up a little.

"I've noticed more girls on vacation dropping in recently," she said.

Restaurants and cafes also experience a rush this time of year.

Shake Pit is a favorite of spring breakers. The landmark hamburger and shake shop was so packed that managers had no time for interviews.

This time of year -- practically perfect in Florida -- also yields business opportunities geared toward families travelling with young children.

Holmes Beach businessman Bob Schaffer said that business at ABC Rentals is booming, and is up by 40 percent from last year.

ABC offers offer over 70 different rental items for traveling families, including highchairs, strollers, car seats for children, roll away beds, air mattresses, umbrellas, hammocks, cabanas, and beach chairs. The Schaffers, who started the business a decade ago after moving from Buffalo, N.Y., employ 11 people and expect to gross about $500,000 this year.

Cribs, difficult to transport, are the bread and butter product, and each of the brand-new 200 baby cribs rent for about $45 a week. When they are all rented, the cribs represent about $9,000 in weekly revenue.

Manatee beaches have maintained a family-friendly reputation, which is why most college and high school students visiting the area tend to stay with family.

On the islands, spring breakers can be seen cycling, skim boarding, kicking soccer balls, and strumming guitars, but when it comes to bars and nightlife, most are not that interested.

StudentCity.com has been ranking and booking spring break hot spots for 20 years. Manatee is not in the running for over-the-top beach bashes, like hard-partying Panama City and Daytona.

"Manatee really isn't marketed as a spring break destination like Daytona is," said Jacki Dezelski, Manatee Chamber of Commerce vice president, "nor would we want to be."

Like Lafon, the FSU student who considers Holmes beach her "home beach," Florida's high school students continue to come to these barrier islands for the atmosphere.

Fort Meade Middle Senior School in Bartow supports an annual senior skip day, and it has become a tradition for students to spend that day visiting Anna Maria Island.

"Past seniors have celebrated here, so it became a thing," said David McGinnis.

"You can't go wrong with a beach day," added his friend Travis Davis.

McGinnis said a college spring break trip could be in store as his friends acknowledged Manatee's beaches are "cool and different" from other stereotypical spring break spots.

"I wish I could be here a full week," McGinnis said.

Lindsey McKamish also wasn't looking for a stereotypical experience. She came to Anna Maria Island from her college in Pittsburgh to celebrate spring break and her birthday. McKamish and her friends said they are here for three b's: boating, baseball, and the beach -- not bar-hopping.

Authorities are making extra efforts to patrol the beaches during spring break and are keeping an eye out for drug abuse and under-aged drinking through the statewide initiative Operation Dry Spring, designed to protect Florida's youth during their vacation time.

Manatee High student Jake Stickler said he doesn't mind the sight of police near the beaches.

"There is an active police presence, but that is not a bad thing," he and his friends acknowledged.

Stickler and his friends concluded that they feel fortunate to live where others vacation.

Erica Earl, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Stephen Frater, Herald senior reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095

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