Fort Lauderdale may lift booze ban on sand for hotel guests

FORT LAUDERDALE — For nearly four decades, Fort Lauderdale has had a ban on booze at the beach — the sandy section, anyway. But there’s now talk of allowing alcohol sales on the sand year-round.

Not everyone would by allowed to sip cocktails by the sea.

To indulge your guilty pleasure, you’d need to be a hotel guest or rent a beach lounge chair.

Hotels alone — no bars, no restaurants — would be allowed to sell all those chardonnays and pina coladas, from Bahia Mar south of Las Olas all the way to Sunrise Boulevard. Customers would also be able to order food from the hotel menu and have it delivered directly to their lounge chair.

Hotels along A1A are pushing the plan, but some locals think it’s a bad idea.

“Most people won’t drink just one drink — they’ll drink two, three or four,” said Warren Sackler, a resident who lives a block from the beach. “There’s definitely going to be more drama if you let people drink on the beach. The police don’t like babysitting and they are going to have to deal with this.”

Once upon a time, during the raunchy heydays of Spring Break, Fort Lauderdale allowed the sale of booze on the beach.

That ended 37 years ago, when city leaders banned alcoholic drinks on the beach, hoping to attract a more well-heeled clientele.

Today, fines range from $50 (for first-time offenders) to $500 (for repeat offenders) if you get caught with a cold one on the sand.

Hotels along the strip are gung-ho about the idea of selling liquor to guests while they bury their toes in the sand for one reason: It’s good for business.

Being served next to the surf is simply something today’s sophisticated traveler has come to expect, said Tamas Vago, general manager of the Hilton Fort Lauderdale Beach Resort.

“Many guests feel that’s part of the resort experience,” Vago said. “In the past 15 years, Fort Lauderdale has gone from a Spring Break destination to a world-class destination. We have high-end, five-star hotels going up on the beach. We are attracting a higher caliber guest who wants that experience. In hospitality we always try to satisfy our guests’ needs, because we want them to come back.”

Some well-traveled guests have been stunned to learn they can’t order a chilled glass of wine on the beach, said Mazen Saleh, general manager of the Four Seasons Hotel and Residences.

“Staying at a five-star resort property, they’ll say, ‘What do you mean I can’t get a salad on the beach? What do you mean I can’t enjoy a glass of wine if I’m sitting on the beach?’” he said.

Former Mayor Jim Naugle says Fort Lauderdale had good reason to ban booze on the beach back in 1985.

“There was a lot of underage drinking and rowdiness,” he said. “There were beer cans and litter all over the beach. But times change. We don’t have Spring Break anymore, not like it was in the 1980s. The rooms are high priced now. It’s not like Panama City.”

The plan would likely get underway later this year, but only if it gets a nod from city leaders.

Commissioners are expected to vote on the proposal in mid-August, with a final vote set for September.

Beachfront hotels would have to get a permit from the city before they could serve customers on the sand. Service would likely be limited to certain hours, say from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Mayor Dean Trantalis and all four commissioners embraced the idea during a City Hall meeting in early July, saying it would help Fort Lauderdale hotels compete in a tough market.

“I think our competition happens to be beaches in other countries that do offer similar services,” Trantalis said. “When people come to travel here from Turkey or Greece or Italy and Spain that have these amenities, I think a lot of people compare that experience to our experience.”

But the mayor made it clear he doesn’t want to see people walking down the beach with their food and drinks.

“The alcohol and food has to be consumed at that chair,” Trantalis said. “If you want to take your dirty martini to the shoreline, you can’t.”

That one rule is small consolation to nearby residents who have come up with a long list of cons to allowing booze on the beach, said Bill Brown, president of the Central Beach Alliance neighborhood association.

Ask what could possibly go wrong and they’ll tell you.

“I don’t have any pros,” said beach resident Paula Yukna. “I have a whole lot of cons. Allowing alcohol on the beach is going to bring a lot of problems. Who’s going to check ID? What if they order alcohol and hand it out to their 16-year-old friends? Who is going to stop people from getting up and walking down the beach? If they drink too much and go in the ocean, the lifeguards will be responsible for saving them.”

Serving people on the beach will also bring more litter, Brown said. More litter means more rats — and more pigeons and seagulls swooping down for scraps.

Then there’s the issue of fairness.

“You’re telling me I can’t bring my cooler [of beer] to the beach when the guy next to me is getting served just because he’s at a hotel?” Brown said. “What about the restaurants and bars? Why aren’t they allowed to serve?”

Good question, said Peter Ricci, hospitality program director at Florida Atlantic University.

“The idea in concept is fantastic,” he said. “It’s a good thing for the economy and the visitors. But I think it’s a little short-sighted to only include the hotels. I think it’s a little unfair and biased.”

As a former general manager for hotels in Sarasota, Clearwater and Jacksonville, Ricci recalls guests being served food and drinks on the sand.

“Every city I worked in allowed drinks at the beach,” Ricci said. “I always thought Fort Lauderdale was too strict.”

Tim Petrillo, owner of the popular Casablanca Cafe, says not all restaurants have the staff to handle extra service on the beach.

“I don’t know how the other [bars and restaurants] would feel,” he said. “But I can’t randomly assign a server to serve food and drinks over on the beach.”

Petrillo, who also serves as chairman of the Broward County Tourism Coalition Council, says he understands the push by high-end resorts to be more competitive.

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“I do think we need to have a competitive market for tourism,” he said. “A lot of people take staycations. When you visit Fort Lauderdale, you expect to be able to order a cocktail while you’re gazing at the sea.”

Dan Lindblade, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, says the time is right to make a change.

“If you’re spending that much money on a hotel room, you’re expecting the fine amenities of a luxury resort,” he said. “You don’t want to be tied to sitting up at the pool deck to order food and drinks.”

It’s too soon to say whether bars and restaurants should also be allowed to serve patrons on the sand, Lindblade said.

As for the critics fretting over rats, pigeons and litter, Lindblade waved away their objections.

“We already have rats and litter,” he said. “The hotels are going to be in charge of grooming their areas and cleaning up. These are all tempest-in-a-teapot scenarios. It’s a big change. Any time there’s a change, there’s always naysayers.”

Susannah Bryan can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan