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Florida theme parks, beaches bulge with spring break crowds

Nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area are on vacation this week.
Park goers wait at a tram stop near the parking lot of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Monday. Nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area are out for spring break and the crowds at theme parks and beaches are showing it.
Park goers wait at a tram stop near the parking lot of Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on Monday. Nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area are out for spring break and the crowds at theme parks and beaches are showing it. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published Mar. 16
Updated Mar. 16

Most of Florida’s colleges canceled spring break this year, but for nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area, it’s still on. This week, they’re all celebrating spring break at the same time.

That has led to sold-out days at Disney World and other theme parks, as well as some crowded beaches.

Guests wear masks as required to visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Advanced reservations are also required and all four Disney theme parks in Orlando are booked solid this week for spring break.
Guests wear masks as required to visit the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Advanced reservations are also required and all four Disney theme parks in Orlando are booked solid this week for spring break. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]

All four theme parks at Disney World are sold out this week. So far, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld haven’t reached capacity, though crowds of visitors who’d made advanced reservations were larger this past week. Posts on social media on Monday talked of hour-long wait times for Busch Gardens rides.

At Universal Orlando, advanced registrations aren’t required, making it harder to predict which days will hit capacity. Monday, however, both Universal parks maxed out their limits before noon.

Universal emailed annual passholders last week to let them know that the company expects Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay to hit capacity over the next few weeks. For the most current information, it suggested checking their Capacity Hotline at 407-817-8317 and the park’s app.

A driving force behind the crush of crowds at beaches and theme parks is that all six public school systems in the Tampa Bay area — Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco, Hernando, Manatee and Sarasota counties — have the same spring break week this year. Monday kicked off vacation for more than 496,000 students, not to mention teachers and staff.

The schools, which saw an uptick in coronavirus cases after the winter break, have urged students and parents to be mindful.

“We have put out messages to students and parents, like we did for winter break, to tell families of course have a great time, but to also continue to follow safety protocols,” said Isabel Mascareñas, spokeswoman for the Pinellas County school system.

Last year, crowds on Clearwater Beach grew so dense they made national news, amid early coverage of the pandemic’s arrival in Florida. Bodies shown packed together on March 18, 2020, went viral, prompting local officials to close the beaches in hopes of stemming the spread of COVID-19.

At last year's spring break, the crowds grew on Clearwater Beach, pictured left on March 18, prompting local officials to close the beaches because of coronavirus concerns. That same beach, show on March 24 at right was empty for nearly two months because of the restrictions.
At last year's spring break, the crowds grew on Clearwater Beach, pictured left on March 18, prompting local officials to close the beaches because of coronavirus concerns. That same beach, show on March 24 at right was empty for nearly two months because of the restrictions. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Tampa Bay Times ]

Deputies policed the crowds as beaches closed to the public on March 24. The county didn’t reopen its 35 miles of world-famous beaches until May 4, when Pinellas Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said he was pleased with the community’s adherence to social-distancing requirements.

Barry Burton, chief administrative officer for Pinellas County government, has said there will be no effort by law enforcement to minimize access this spring — at least as long as people adhere to guidelines. To ensure safety protocols are being followed, he said, police will patrol and inspect beach bars and restaurants.

Unlike the public school systems, most of Florida’s colleges will skip spring break this year and instead will end the semester early in mid-April. The idea was to prevent students from bringing the virus back to campus after spending a week on vacation.

But the beaches are packed anyway, the mayor of Miami said last weekend.

“We’re seeing too much spring break activity,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber told CNN on Saturday after police arrested more than 100 people following a series of violent brawls among rowdy spring break crowds on Friday and Saturday. “We’ve got a problem with .... too many people coming here to let loose.”

Park goers wait at a tram stop near the parking lot of Busch Gardens in Tampa on Monday, the first day of spring break for nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area.
Park goers wait at a tram stop near the parking lot of Busch Gardens in Tampa on Monday, the first day of spring break for nearly half a million public school students in the Tampa Bay area. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

“We are concerned,” he said. “It’s very challenging.”

Spring is bringing a surge in travel, according to the Transportation Security Administration. TSA reported on Saturday that it had screened about 1.4 million people at airport security checkpoints Friday — the highest number of passengers since March 15, 2020.