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Tampa Bay is enjoying busiest spring break season in years

Anthony Pope carries his son, Nico, while playing in the water on spring break at St. Pete Beach on Wednesday afternoon. Pope described the weather as “perfect.” The family is visiting from Chicago for a week.

Photos by DIRK SHADD | Times

Anthony Pope carries his son, Nico, while playing in the water on spring break at St. Pete Beach on Wednesday afternoon. Pope described the weather as “perfect.” The family is visiting from Chicago for a week.

Packed beaches. Traffic jams. Long lines.

All signs are pointing to a robust spring break season around the Tampa Bay area.

It may even be one of the best yet, local leaders and business owners say.

"We've heard from chambers. We've heard from restaurants. We've heard from hotels," said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. "This season seems to be setting records."

Officials won't have this spring's statistics compiled for a couple months, Downing said, but the clues are hard to miss.

Restaurants are full. Traffic in and around the Clearwater area — widely considered ground zero of local spring break activities — has swelled considerably.

About 60,000 cars a day are traveling along Gulf-to-Bay Boulevard. That's nearly double the 35,000 cars that are normally on the road.

Last week, in an effort to alleviate some of the road traffic, officials approved an idea to provide water taxi service for visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Hoteliers say they started noticing bookings pick up in December.

"We've been sold out pretty much every night. It's been unbelievable," said Keith Overton, president of TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach, which has about 800 rooms. "Our best March ever was March of 2008. We are on pace to tie or slightly beat that."

Downing cited a plethora of reasons for this year's success: huge marketing campaigns, events like the Honda Grand Prix races in St. Petersburg, buzz around the Spring Breakers movie being filmed here and a surge in consumer confidence.

Tourism officials say the increasing visits may be a sign that the economy is recovering. Tourists also may have been scared away from Florida over the last two years because of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, but now there is a "pent-up demand" to return, Downing said.

But perhaps the biggest help has been something officials have no control over at all: great weather.

"It seems like there's a lot of synergy going on," Downing said. "It's been a string of very, very good luck."

Another perk for businesses, officials say, is that the traditional window of spring break has widened. The season can start as early as February and stretch through April.

"It's like a perpetual spring break," said Darlene Kole, head of the Clearwater Beach Chamber of Commerce. "It isn't just a couple of weeks in March anymore."

She said there were 2,000 to 3,000 walk-ins last December at two beach welcome centers. These days, she said, about 5,000 to 6,000 people a month come in searching for information.

"Many of our member (businesses) have shared with us that their numbers are up," she said. "They are breaking records out there."

Crowds also have been flocking to Fort De Soto, Pinellas County's most popular park, despite a new $5 user fee that went into effect this year.

"It's been exceptionally good," park supervisor Jim Wilson said. "We couldn't get a better weather report. Camping's been off the chart, and that's always a good economic indicator."

In fact, he said, camping spots are sold out through April.

The success doesn't seem to be limited to beach-heavy Pinellas County.

Jill Revelle, a Busch Gardens spokeswoman, said park officials anticipated a good spring tourist season. This is the first spring break the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster has been open. Officials also recently added a new ice show and animal care facility.

"We got exactly what we were expecting," Revelle said. "It's going strong."

Earlier this month, Tampa International Airport reported a spike in the number of passengers. The airport served 1.3 million people in February, 7.2 percent more than the same time last year. At least three airlines — Southwest, Delta and JetBlue — added more flights to accommodate spring breakers.

Even those expecting a good season have been surprised at how well it's going.

Edward Lehmann, general manager of the new Surf Style megastore on Clearwater Beach, said foot traffic through the shop has been "incredible."

"We knew it was going to be busy," he said. "But it's different to know it than to feel it."

Leaders said they expect the momentum to continue throughout the year.

This year's optimism is nearly the direct opposite of two years ago after the BP oil spill. Back then, local business and political leaders fretted about the negative perception the spill would have on tourism, even though no oil reached local shores.

"We feel quite fortunate and blessed that we recovered as quickly as we did," Kole said. "It does feel good. And it's very encouraging."

Kameel Stanley can be reached at kstanley@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8643.

Tampa Bay is enjoying busiest spring break season in years 03/28/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 28, 2012 10:34pm]

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