College students on spring break stimulate Florida's economy

As beachgoers clogged traffic on a futile hunt for parking along State Road A1A, Jay Olivera looked out at the deck of his Fort Lauderdale restaurant and gave special thanks for Spring Break '09.

"This time last week we'd have three tables," said Olivera, manager of Sangrias, where you can buy one jumbo margarita and get a second one free. "Now we've got 20."

Olivera expects the rush of college students to double his business during a winter vacation season that has been a disappointment across South Florida. And while a grim recession has corporations scratching conferences and travelers cutting back, spring breakers are a welcome (if rowdy) mainstay.

"The No. 1 expense has been alcohol and cab rides," said Angelo Todesca, a 20-year-old college student from Boston on a week's trip to Fort Lauderdale. "I brought down $500. I'm hoping to leave with zero."

Such frugal budgets temper the enthusiasm for spring break in South Florida's tourism industry, and this year has brought a noticeably smaller influx of college students, according to hoteliers and restaurateurs. Still, the turnout has the beaches and bars crowded enough to leave many business owners toasting the season with the cheapest two-for-one draft beers they can find.

"March is proving to be a really good month," said Linsey Harris, general manager of the Catalina Hotel in South Beach. "The spring breakers are definitely here."

February rattled the 137-room hotel, which saw weak bookings for the Miami International Boat Show and March reservations well below normal.

"We were nervous," Harris said. But the start of spring break season brought a flood of last-minute bookings, and this week finds the Catalina nearly sold out.

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