DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- I glanced down the seemingly endless swath of beige sand of Daytona Beach alongside my 15-year-old daughter, Alex. A couple in their early 20s walked arm in arm collecting seashells, an older man in a coral-colored baseball cap and windbreaker languidly combed the beach with a metal detector, and a clump of seagulls pecked for crabs.
I shook my head and chuckled at the disparity between the tranquil scene before us, and the one I had experienced 20 years before.
As a college freshman in 1983, I rolled into Daytona Beach on a chartered bus from upstate New York with 70 other sleep-deprived and junk-food-fueled coeds. We giddily crammed four to a dingy room in a beachfront dive motel. For the next four days, we parked our sunburned bodies on the beach between jeeps, pickup trucks, and other scantily clad women. Chiseled guys tossed footballs and guzzled plastic cups of Budweiser. Boy George blared from huge loudspeakers that a local radio station had perched on the boardwalk. We gathered poolside for a ''wet buns" contest that I entered unabashedly. Ah, spring break.
So, where was the current generation of raucous students?
''Spring break isn't what it used to be here anymore," lamented Ben Cheatam, who works in a retail store at the pier.
Clearly, things had changed in 20 years. In addition to cracking down on ''wet buns" and ''wet T-shirt" contests, the town prohibits thong bathing suits on the boardwalk. The prohibitions on alcohol and nudity on the beach have long been in existence, according to Sergeant Dave Byron, a spokesman for Volusia County, which manages area beaches, though enforcement seems to have taken a more serious tone.
''There has been a concerted effort in the community to corral spring break," Byron said.
''After the stories you see about college kids coming here, I was scared about what we might find," acknowledged Lisa Wells, from Fort Wayne, Ind. She and her husband, Glen, brought their children, ages 9, 7, and 4, here for a week in late February. They were relieved -- and surprised -- by what they encountered.
''Nobody's here right now," Glen Wells marveled.
Not everyone is pleased with the change.
''Since MTV left, it's gone downhill," said the twentysomething Cheatham, a native. ''They're turning it into a time-share retirement community." He shook his head in dismay. ''It's ridiculous."
Many hotels that formerly catered to the spring break crowd have shifted their marketing efforts toward a more upscale family clientele, according to Byron. Indeed, the Desert Inn Resort, which had been the center of activity when I was here in college, doesn't even mention the words ''spring break" on its website.
''The place has changed a lot in 25 years," said Kim Eddy, 35, who's been coming to Daytona Beach from her home in Atlantic City since 1980 when her grandparents retired. ''The town is trying to be more family oriented," she said, as she and her husband and their two small children enjoyed the amusement rides at one of the boardwalk arcades.
Besides the nearly empty beach, the other significant changes I noticed were the glistening high-rise condos and new hotels along the beach, including the 742-room Hilton near the pier.
''With the hurricanes [last fall], a lot of the roach motels didn't make it," said Jo Avocho, a reservations clerk at Emerald Shores Resort. Condos, many of them time-share units, have sprouted in their place.
The most visible development is the $200 million Ocean Walk Village, a nexus for family vacationers. Bridging Atlantic Avenue and the boardwalk, the complex includes a cineplex and several retail shops and restaurants, including a Cold Stone Creamery, a daily stop for Alex and me on our five-day stay. Made each day, the super premium ice cream comes in tantalizing flavors like Fireball and Cake Batter. Tempting cookies and candies can be added to make ''creations."
The main draw remains, of course, the beach, a hard-packed 23-mile stretch. Though the hurricanes eroded a sizable chunk, much remains intact.
Regrettably, the week of our visit coincided with a low-pressure system barreling in from the north, which shrouded us in clouds and rain and forced us to abandon plans to surf. The twentysomething guys at the local Maui Nix Surf Shop had tipped us off to some good breaks at Ponce Inlet, one of the many fine surf spots nearby. But the waves were much too treacherous for us. Still, though the overcast skies and chilly 60-degree temperatures didn't make for an ideal beach day, we were determined to enjoy the ocean's magic. We weren't alone: A father played toss football with his young son, another dad waited on shore as his three intrepid children splashed in the surf, and a collection of moms chatted as their toddlers played in the sand.
What I didn't know about as a college student was the collection of lovely parks in the area. Lighthouse Point Park, for example, is about 10 miles south in the town of Ponce Inlet. On a spit of land north of Ponce de Leon Inlet, where the Halifax River (part of the Intracoastal Waterway) drains into the Atlantic Ocean, are 52 acres of protected dunes and native flora. Raised wooden walking trails lead visitors past saw palmetto and wildflowers. We wandered aimlessly along the nature trails, many with unobstructed views of the ocean, and ventured onto the jetty to watch a few anglers cast for mango snapper and sheephead.
Tom Renick Park, about 6 miles north of Daytona in Ormond Beach, has a sheltered picnic area and small playground with a padded floor, ideal for small children. Parking is plentiful.
Surprisingly (and, thankfully, given our dismal weather), Daytona Beach boasts a number of indoor attractions. In addition to displays of shark teeth and whale carcasses, the Marine Science Center in Ponce Inlet features a turtle rehabilitation center, a collection of green sea turtles and loggerheads injured by boats or cars.
Junior motorheads will marvel at Daytona USA, an interactive motor sports center. The Daytona Dream Laps replicates the tension and movement of careering 190 miles per hour on a simulated Daytona track, and precisely registers the terror of being inches away from a speeding car.
''That was fun!" exclaimed a 9-year-old girl from Jacksonville.
The 16-second Pit Stop Challenge asks teams to change a tire in 16 seconds (the pit pros at Daytona fill a tank with gas and change four tires in 13 seconds). During our visit, we watched a team of four take 34 seconds to change one tire.
Compared with my college days (and the tales of my hell-raising uncle who raced motorcycles at Daytona Beach Speedway in the 1970s and 1980s), Daytona Beach was considerably more sane on our recent trip. Still, town officials bristle at the suggestion that it has only recently transformed into a family destination.
''We've always been family friendly," insists Kevin Kilian, vice president of communications for the Daytona Beach Chamber of Commerce. ''People think we can only have one signature, but we have many."
Indeed, perusing the area's calendar of events, one understands the diversity of the town's 9 million annual visitors. In addition to Bike Week (which draws 500,000 visitors for what is billed as ''the world's largest motorcycle event") and Race Week (which culminates with the Daytona 500 NASCAR race), the town hosts Black College Reunion Week and the professional rodeo circuit. Last week, the National Cheerleading Championships were here.
Summer is traditionally a time for family visitors. ''We get a big summer crowd of people coming down from Georgia and South Carolina," said Brendan Galbreath, co-owner of Aunt Catfish's on the River.
Before leaving town, my daughter and I went to the Starlite Diner, a classic greasy spoon on Atlantic Avenue, for Sunday breakfast. Sliding into the vinyl-covered booth, 1950s memorabilia covering the walls, I realized this was the sort of place I would have visited as a student. The place was packed with families and middle-age couples, though a pile of collegians occupied a back booth.
Heather, our 20-year-old waitress, herself a local college student, confirmed that the new owners had been trying to make more of an effort to attract families, pointing to the new children's menu as evidence. ''But, it's hard for people to get out of that spring break mentality," she said, smiling.
Wendy Knight is a freelance writer in Vermont.