Frozen college students are trading in snowdrifts and cold walks to class for a different, more welcome, kind of white powder — the sand of Pinellas County beaches.
This week marks the start of the spring break season, a four- to six-week stretch when high school and college students flock from near and far to lounge on the beach and melt away the memories of a remarkably brutal winter.
Clearwater Beach always draws a substantial spring break crowd, and Darlene Kole, president of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce, expects this year to be no different.
"Another banner year," she said. "We're going to be sold out this spring break."
Madeira Beach is also likely to see spring breakers, as is St. Pete Beach. Treasure Island used to be a big spring break destination until the city limited alcohol consumption on the beach due to large, rowdy crowds.
Shephard's Beach Resort, the college spring break mecca on the south end of Clearwater Beach, will remain the premiere destination this year, especially on Sundays as it revives its Beach Party Sundays tradition.
Owner Bill Shephard said the resort, which just added 93 rooms and a new pool, will host parties with a different theme every night throughout the spring break season. Rapper Vanilla Ice is scheduled to perform on the resort's famed "Paddy-o" deck March 15.
Radio station WiLD 94.1 will again hold WiLD Splash, a daylong hip-hop festival in Coachman Park in downtown Clearwater, on Saturday. It will feature artists Wiz Khalifa, B.o.B. and Far East Movement.
Despite all the activities, Kole contends that Clearwater does not draw the "wild and crazy type of spring breakers."
"I think it's managed so well that it doesn't have an opportunity to get out of hand," she said.
Doing most of the managing on Clearwater Beach will be police Lt. William Valveri, who just transferred there last week. He said the city recently assigned two officers to the beach permanently. Also, eight more officers are on hand specifically for the spring break season.
Valveri said traffic is the department's main concern. Beyond that, he said, "Generally, it's more quality-of-life type issues, minor offenses, the open alcohol on the beach, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication." He also warned of phone and wallet theft on the beach.
Officers will be patrolling by car, bike and on foot, though Valveri declined to go into detail about their enforcement strategy.
"I don't want to give away any secrets," he said.
Spring breakers visiting Clearwater Beach this year should be aware that the city has installed red-light cameras on Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard and Chestnut Street — major routes to and from the beach. Owners of cars photographed running the red lights will get a $158 ticket.
David Downing of the county tourism agency Visit St. Pete-Clearwater said it is easy to see what makes Pinellas County an attractive location for students during their weeklong vacation.
"You can look at weather maps, and it doesn't take a scientist to know that it's warmer here than it is up North," he said. "Short of flying to the Caribbean or Mexico or someplace else that probably requires more work, more planning and more money, (we are) just an obvious choice."
Downing said the agency launched expansive ad campaigns in New York, Chicago and Toronto.
"We're really going after the cold weather really big this year," he said. "The notion of the polar vortex, having made winter in some of our key feeder markets a miserable experience, really does play well in our efforts to draw from those markets."
Kelli Jo Ekstrom, 23, thought so, too. She graduated from Clarion University in Pennsylvania in December.
"We are getting away from the blizzards up North," she said, lounging Friday on Clearwater Beach with two friends. "It's wonderful being down here … gorgeous."
Michael Masserant, 20, a junior at the University of Michigan at Dearborn, said Friday that he was reluctantly returning to school Sunday.
"I've skipped multiple classes," he said. "When it's 8 a.m., snowing and it's below zero, nobody wants to go to class."
Josh Solomon can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155. On Twitter @JSolomonTIMES.