The Death of Spring Break

For decades, water balloons and squirt guns kept the co-eds cool as they caroused downtown Palm Springs along Palm Canyon Drive.

March 13, 2019
Palm Springs as a spring break destination hit a wall in 1986.

Palm Springs began to flourish as a spring break destination after World War II. The lack of a beach was no big deal. For decades, water balloons and squirt guns kept the co-eds cool as they caroused downtown along Palm Canyon Drive.

But in March 1986, things got ugly. Harmless water toys were replaced with large water coolers that revelers dumped into cars held up in the traffic jam. Men jumped into truck beds and ripped off women’s tops. They threw rocks. One of the few police officers on scene was briefly knocked out by a beer-bottle blow to the head. Law enforcement demanded that partiers disperse or prepare for arrest. They took approximately 120 people into custody.

In the ensuing years, the city clamped down to de-fun the event. Sidewalk boozing and G-strings were outlawed; even stepping off the curb could result in a citation for being a pedestrian in the roadway. In 1987, police issued more than 4,500 tickets.


To regain control of the downtown thoroughfare, city officials rerouted the state highway. Formerly a direct shot from east to west valley following Palm Canyon Drive, Highway 111 now bypasses the downtown section of Palm Canyon with a detour on Vista Chino and Gene Autry Trail. Free of the state highway designation, the city can close or barricade the street anytime without state approval.

After the 2008 recession, however, the city had a change of heart. “Skip Cabo, come to Palm Springs,” a campaign proclaimed. Now, Palm Springs boasts that it “practically invented spring break.” It’s an arguable point, and an ironic one, considering that 30-some years ago the city did its best to kill it.