BY LEAH MERRALL
Arizona Sonora News
On the western border of central Arizona sits Lake Havasu City, a relatively quiet town of around 50,000 beside the Colorado River that’s characterized by its large body of water — actually, a reservoir for the Colorado River’s flow — in the middle of the desert. It’s home to an actual London Bridge and to retirees from colder regions of the country and Canada during the winter months who enjoy the laid-back desert atmosphere.
Laid-back till the spring, that is, when this small community turns into one of the country’s hottest and wildest Spring Break destinations during March.
Every March, thousands of college students roll into town for a constant party, bringing loud music and intense drinking. Hotels suddenly get booked for mid-week and the lake becomes populated with boats that house often drunk students who have made their way top the desert to party.
In 2016, Coed.com, an online magazine with college news, sports and lifestyle features, ranked Lake Havasu City 15 out of 20 on its “trashiest” Spring Break locations list, down from No. 10 on the previous year’s list. The top five on this year’s list were Las Vegas, Cancun, Cabo San Lucas, Montego Bay and South Padre Island, Texas.
The site said that more spring-breakers are traveling outside of the United States, so locations in Mexico and the Caribbean were included in the 2016 list. “We’ve still kept some of the most important categories that can help make or break your trip: like the availability of strip clubs, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, drug laws/availability, and whether or not there’s any legal gambling available,” Coed.com said.
For Havasu’s residents, those who go with the flow anyhow, Spring Break is an entertainment opportunity and a chance to enjoy the influx of youth. One resident, Judy Day, who has lived in Havasu for 32 years, said that she appreciates the college students flocking into town.
“My husband and I enjoy coming down and walking along the channel and taking in the ambiance of drunken young people,” she said, referring to the Bridgewater Channel, a body of water dredged by the city to showcase its trademark, a 19th Century London Bridge that once spanned the River Thames — till it relocated to Havasu. The bridge’s granite facing stones were shipped from England and reassembled at then-sleepy Havasu as an attraction to lure retirees and tourists. At the official dedication for the bridge attended by 25,000 in 1971, The Los Angeles Times described “a bizarre ceremony combining hoary English pomp and Arizona informality.”
Many of Havasu’s Spring Break activities are centered around the lake, including boating, paddle-boarding or just laying on the beach.
For the last seven years, the young people Day welcomed were from 300 college campuses in over 30 states, brought together by a company called Summer Winter Action Tours (SWAT) that arranged everything from hotel stays to entertainment in package tours marketed to college students. The company’s president, Thomas “TJ” Jaenichen, said that 32,000 people came to town last year for Spring Break.
However, 2016 was SWAT’s last year in Havasu, he said.
Since establishing Lake Havasu City as one of the most popular Spring Break destinations in the country, Jaenichen said he has has struggled to maintain his operation as hotels raised their prices and the city cracked down on noise with new ordinances. He said that he spends $350,000 to put on his shows that he produces as entertainment for the spring breakers, and that they have to be over by midnight.
“They chose not to give us any money; they chose not to give us an exemption on the sound ordinance issues, and they chose not to drop hotel rates,” Jaenichen said. “I’m just not going to continue down the same path.”
Instead, SWAT will move its Spring Break operations to Rosarito, Mexico. Jaenichen said this move is the perfect way to celebrate the company’s twentieth anniversary and that it solves a lot of his problems at once: prices, noise and the potential issues associated with underage drinking.
For the Lake Havasu City Convention and Visitor’s Bureau, SWAT’s exit has presented an opportunity to attract a new breed of spring breakers. Jason Castelluci, director of digital marketing for the bureau said that they are working with a package tour company called JusCollege out of Las Vegas to help bring students who are looking for a more well-rounded Spring Break experience, meaning it’s about things other than just partying.
“Those kinds of students tend to have a higher spend value, so those students are able to buy a package, and those kinds of students are less likely to get in trouble,” Castelluci said. “If you keep them busy, keep them engaged, they’re far less likely to cause problems.”
Even before tour groups, Havasu was a popular Spring Break destination, Castelluci said. In fact, Lonely Planet ranked Lake Havasu City as one of the best spring break destinations in the world, saying it’s “as classically Spring Break as it gets.” Havasu ranked among places like Rio de Janeiro and Whistler, Canada.
Jackie Leatherman, director of event marketing at the the visitors’ bureau, said that one of the best parts about Havasu in the spring is the cross-generational atmosphere. She said that oftentimes winter retirees who are still in town will sit on a bench by the channel and watch the college students have a good time, much as Day and her husband do.
“This is part of what makes Havasu so amazing, is our Havasu community embraces what makes Havasu,” Leatherman said. “Our spring breakers are just one month out of the year, and we always welcome them. No matter why you’re coming to Havasu, the Havasu community has adapted to embracing and welcoming people. We’re all kind of little tour guides in a way.”
For now, the residents of Lake Havasu City can enjoy the quiet winter. But come spring, the spring breakers will be back, and the month-long party will begin all over again — but a little less rambunctious, it seems.
Leah Merrall is a junior studying journalism and communication, and plans to be a news reporter after college. She was born in Toronto, Canada, and lived the other half of her life in Scottsdale, Ariz., and enjoys reading and traveling.
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