With anxious spring breakers ready to embark on Destin for some fun in the sun, all hands are on deck locally to prepare for an influx of visitors.
"We are expecting a 5 percent increase (in visitors) compared to last year," said Tom Kraus, from the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Council.
Thousands of college students and families from all across the south will call Destin home during the upcoming spring break season, which is right around the corner. Colleges from Alabama, Florida, Kentucky, Georgia and Louisiana have been flocking to the area for years.
Despite the cooler temperatures along the Emerald Coast, lifeguards in Okaloosa County will be on the beaches beginning March 9 to offer their advice and services, if needed.
In Destin, beach safety lifeguards will be on the beach from 9:45 a.m. - 5:45 p.m., seven days a week, Beach Safety Chief Joe D'Agostino told The Log.
"Our crews are always ready," he said. "We are expecting the busiest spring break this area has ever seen."
Beach Safety lifeguards will monitor beaches from the Walton County line to the eastern boundary of Henderson Beach State Park, then from the western boundary of the park to East Pass. The patrol at the pass was prompted by a series of drownings over the past few years.
As for the influx of beach goers, D'Agostino told The Log the key to staying safe on spring break is watching the beach flags and knowing when to listen to the lifeguards.
"It's all about education," he said. "You should always heed the advice of the beach patrol or even the beach attendants."
For deputies from the Okaloosa County Sheriff's Office, there is more to spring break patrols than just monitoring the beaches for underage drinkers and other illegal activities.
Last year, for example, deputies noticed that instead of renting condos and hotels for spring break, students were renting houses in the Crystal Beach area and holding big house parties and street parties, according to sheriff's office spokeswoman Michele Nicholson.
"Deputies just go where they are needed," she wrote in an email to The Log. "Whether it's on the beaches or in a neighborhood where houses are rented out."
In 2012, beach patrol deputies issued at least 543 citations to underage drinkers during spring break, compared to 342 notices-to-appear for underage possession of alcohol handed out in 2011. Based on data from the sheriff's office, students from Alabama (83), Georgia (74), Louisiana (65) and Mississippi (46) were cited the most for underage possession of alcohol.
The sheriff's department will have deputies performing off-duty details at area hotels and condos, providing extra security, Nicholson wrote. She said beach patrols will have a "zero tolerance" policy in place for underage drinking.
Operators of the Southern Restaurant Group, which includes Pompano Joe's Seafood House, The Back Porch Seafood & Oyster House, Fisherman's Wharf Seafood House, and Louisiana Lagniappe, have plenty of staff on the schedule and food in the walk-in coolers to serve hungry visitors.
"Usually by March 1, we're ready for them," said John Comer, president and CEO of Southern Restaurant Group. "It's (spring break) almost like a trial run for summer."
As for his expectations about the upcoming spring break season, Comer said he is optimistic, despite a down economy and gas prices that have been continually on the rise.
"We typically go by what our rental companies are showing and they are booked up pretty solid," he said.
And if the upcoming spring break season is like last years, it should be pretty successful based on the bed tax dollars generated in Okaloosa County.
For the 2011-2012 fiscal year, bed tax revenue in March was more than $1 million, compared to less than $800,000 the year prior.
With the spring break season right around the corner, here are some of the schools that will be on break in the upcoming weeks:
Louisiana State UniversityŚMarch 29-April 5
Tulane UniversityŚMarch 24-April 1
Florida State UniversityŚMarch 11-15
University of FloridaŚMarch 2-9
University of AlabamaŚMarch 22-29
Auburn UniversityŚMarch 11-15
University of KentuckyŚMarch 11-16
University of TexasŚMarch 11-16
University of GeorgiaŚMarch 11-15
Mississippi StateŚMarch 9-17
The University of MississippiŚMarch 11-15