PANAMA CITY BEACH — Spring break 2011 T-shirts, beer cozies, thong bikinis and Mardi Gras beads fill the shelves at the Paradise Found store on Panama City Beach. The shop is hiring extra staff and will maintain extended hours through March and April.
"Now we are just waiting," said store manager Dean Chon on a recent sunny afternoon as he folded T-shirts and tended to the store's only customers, a retired couple from the Midwest.
Businesses up and down this strip of turquoise gulf waters and white-sand beach are anxiously waiting, hoping and counting on thousands of teens and twenty-somethings to arrive en masse for spring break 2011.
A strong spring break will be an important sign the area has moved past last year's BP oil spill, which brought some tar balls and oil-covered debris to the beach. A weak spring break will be another tough hit for the beach that had high hopes for 2010 with the opening of an international airport before the spill ruined summer tourism along a 200-mile swath of Florida's Panhandle.
"Spring break kicks off the whole summer travel season," said Dan Rowe, president of the Panama City Beach Convention and Visitors' Bureau.
Rowe and his staff have made the rounds of colleges in the Midwest, distributing gift cards and promoting convenient flights to the new Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport.
They next plan to visit schools in Georgia and Tennessee with later spring break dates.
In the meantime, the local economy has been buoyed by a steady flow of retirees seeking a break from the brutal northern winter. Panama City Beach saw an 8 percent increase in its tourism development tax collections in December over the same month in 2009, Rowe said.
The city is offering winter resident appreciation days to lure more of the northern snowbirds, while making the transition to spring with an aggressive online campaign to let college students know that the weather is good and the beach is clean. Businesses are offering deals on the Panama City Beach website for visitors with student IDs on everything from airboat tours and limousine rides to hot wings.
The marketing blitz appears to be paying off. Southwest Airlines says its flights into Panama City are full the weekends of March 11 and 19 and travel companies are generally reporting solid bookings.
Ticket sales on Expedia.com to Panama City Beach for March are up by 156 percent compared to 2010, said Devon Nagle, an Expedia spokesman.
Expedia was offering package deals on flights and a five-night hotel stay in Panama City from locations including Chicago, Dallas and New York. Prices on Thursday ranged from $871 to $1,502 per person.
Mack Carter and his family have operated Shuckums Oyster Bar & Seafood Grill on Panama City Beach for more than 30 years, 2010 was the toughest because of the oil spill.
As his employees poured buckets of raw oysters into ice containers at the edge of a long bar, Carter said spring break 2011 is important for the local economy and for morale.
Daniel Estaffa's friends opened the Hook'd Bar and Grill that he manages on July 23 — in the middle of the oil spill. Estaffa has had mostly quiet days so far at the beach-front grill. He's heard stories about wild spring break crowds on Panama City Beach, but isn't sure what to expect this year.
"We are more family oriented but we are not opposed to spring break dollars," he said while pouring a beer for a retiree. "All dollars are vital for us because most restaurants fold in their first year."