Forget Palm Springs. Lake Havasu Is Now the Place for Spring Break--and Even the Mayor Gets in the Swim : Party Town USA

TIMES STAFF WRITER

At the waterfront tourist hub in the center of town, folks are enjoying fish and chips beneath the saving shade of the London Bridge, and the double-deck Dixie Belle paddles off with another boatload of sightseers.

But four miles down the lake, at the remote and infamous Copper Canyon cove, tourists of a decidedly wilder ilk are themselves the real sight to behold.

Hundreds of college-age revelers, fortified by a breakfast of liquid courage, are partying atop the upper sun decks of 20 littered houseboats, sandwiched together so tightly that students traipse from one boat to the next like so many steppingstones. Some boats list as wide-eyed young men crowd the railing, egging on young women--with remarkable success--to shed their suits and jump naked into the water from a rock ledge towering 60 feet above the shoreline.

Meanwhile, a mile away from the London Bridge, more students are hanging out at a secluded resort on "The Island," a finger of land cut off from the main shore to create a channel for the bridge.

Hard rock music blares across the strand from eardrum-busting loudspeakers as a dozen coquettish young women rehearse for the afternoon's bikini contest. At the waterline, tanned-and-oiled beach boys are lounging atop speedboats and Jet Skis and debating who is going to make the next beer run.

And so it goes at spring break, Lake Havasu-style, the destination for a growing number of college students who are turning their backs on the traditional target for spring vacation--Palm Springs.

While Palm Springs banned G-string bikinis and the baring of buttocks in 1991 and this year is closing its main drag to cruising, promoters here, with the city's blessing, are recruiting on college campuses to bring students--and their dollars--to Lake Havasu.

Palm Springs officials are so numbed by past spring breaks and their annual parade of lewdness down Palm Canyon Drive that now they are staging--get this!--a "Desert Harvest Days and Wildflower Festival" to attract a mellower brand of tourist.

The city wants desperately to cleanse its soiled Easter Week image, created by years of student antics that too often turned criminal or destructive. A violent melee was ignited in 1986 when a young woman appeased a crowd of young men by baring her breasts, prompting youths up and down the street to heave rocks and bottles and tear clothing off women.

Over the years, young people have injured themselves from excessive revelry--or have been shot or stabbed in confrontations between college visitors and gangs.

Spring break costs Palm Springs $400,000 in overtime police costs--not to mention lost revenue from the would-be bread-and-butter of the city's tourism trade: the families, senior citizens and upper-crust visitors scared away.

Intent on reclaiming civility on their streets, city officials are even suggesting to inquiring college kids that this year they might have more fun at Lake Havasu.

The students have gotten the message. From campuses throughout California, Oregon, Washington, Nevada, Utah and Colorado, more young people are adopting this stretch of the Colorado River for their annual blowout.

And learning from Palm Springs, Lake Havasu's promoters are trying mightily to orchestrate events so tightly that shenanigans will be contained. Not only are students required to wear color-coded wristbands to gain access to major events, but the promoters heavily supervise the activities with their own security staffs.

The students do not seem to mind the supervision.

"Once you're out here on the water, you can do whatever you want," said Steven Jennings, 22, a fraternity member from Cal State San Bernardino, as his buddies rolled another keg of beer up a gangplank to their houseboat. "The boat is yours, the lake is yours, and the cops here are cool."

Said Steve Anderson, 21, from Santa Clara University: "I went to Palm Springs last year. You just drink and drive down Palm Canyon Drive. Period. And I hear now that they're closing the city down.

"Here, you've got your beach, your water, your cliff diving. It's hot! It's a lot better than Palm Springs!"

Even the 57-year-old mayor of Lake Havasu City is taking all this in stride, comfortable with the knowledge that most of the students will avoid downtown by day--except to pick up more kegs--and will show up at night only long after the grown-ups have retired for the evening.

"We don't want a tough, rowdy element here. We're kind of rednecks, you know, and we'll put them in jail and fine the pants off them," said Mayor Chuck Langerveld. "But, you know, we don't mind the young people. Look how much money they bring in!"

Spend, they do.

The students go into town at night--to Kokomo's, the popular waterfront bar alongside the London Bridge, or Hussong's, farther up the street. But even then, townsfolk do not need to worry much about drunk drivers: Free shuttle buses run the drinking crowd back and forth from their houseboats and motel rooms on The Island to the bars in town, and everyone agrees that's just dandy.

The Police Department has canceled vacations and doubled the number of patrol officers cruising the city, bracing for the most intense part of spring break when contingents from San Diego State, Cal State Chico and Cal State Long Beach are expected.

But until the big rush arrives in two weeks, the officers seem almost bored. The heaviest action is being absorbed by the Sheriff's Department, which prowls the lake for drunk sailors.

For the most part, though, these collegians are policing themselves because they have been warned that if they misbehave, their wristbands will be snipped off as punishment and they will lose access to the houseboats, the dances, the bars and the like.

The orange wristband? That will get you on the houseboats. Yellow wristbands get you onto the party beach at the Nautical Inn. Purple? Admission to the night's dance. The green wristband at Kokomo's shows you have proved that you are 21. The more wristbands you've got, the cooler you are.

And for those who do not want to play by the rules, witness what happened to the under-aged youth who tried to weasel his way into one popular bar: He was handcuffed and escorted away by a Lake Havasu City police officer.

Sure, there will be damage--but that is the cost of doing business. At H2O Houseboats, Vice President John Hoskin says he will repaint and re-carpet the boats before families show up after Easter.

To minimize the damage, Hoskin requires cash security deposits of up to $1,000--on top of the rental fees, which run upward of $1,390 per week.

Among his spring break rules: No more than 12 on-board sleepers, no more than 50 people on a boat at a time, pilot the houseboats back to the beachfront at sunset, and no jumping off the side.

But for all Hoskin's efforts, tragedy can still occur. A 20-year-old UC San Diego student was killed March 21 when he dived off the back of a houseboat, apparently without realizing that it was backing up, and he struck the propeller. It was the first fatality involving the houseboats in the six years he has rented them, Hoskin said.

More than 50 people have been killed on the lake in recent years, typically in incidents involving speed boats and their intoxicated pilots, officials say.

Next door to where the houseboats are berthed, Ritz Entertainment, a Los Angeles promotions company, has booked the Nautical Inn for its spring break packages.

"If you give the kids something to do all day long, they won't cause trouble," Ritz President Eric Jensen said. "The kids come to have fun. It's when they have nothing to do that they get drunk."

Not everyone is tickled by the activities. One elderly man staying at the Nautical Inn groused that he could not sleep: "Noise pollution. Every night."

But the town's merchants say spring break is a grin-and-bear-it affair, and they do a fine business peddling T-shirts and souvenirs.

"Our business is tourism, and spring break is a vital part of that," said Nita Weir, general manager of the Island Inn Resort.

"They're young and they're sowing their oats," she said, "and why shouldn't they? They'll only be young once."

The New Party Place

Rowdy students on spring break are finding a warmer welcome at Lake Havasu than they have lately in Palm Springs.

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