After an irrepressibly cold, wet winter kept tourists cooped up at home, area hotels, restaurants, shops and attractions are warmed by the prospect of an extra week of spring break.
For the first time in years, Texas school districts and colleges have staggered spring break schedules, as opposed to almost everyone being off the same week.
Schedules vary across the state. Galveston, Texas City and League City school districts, along with those in Austin and Dallas are off this week, for example. But Houston Independent School District is off next week.
Such scheduling across Texas gives Galveston, Kemah and Bolivar Peninsula two solid weeks of spring break business, much welcomed after a lingering cold snap chilled winter tourism and sales.
“It’s been a long, cold winter,” Jim Vratis, owner of the popular Crystal Beach eatery Stingaree Restaurant & Marina, said.
Stingaree generally has strong weekend crowds in the offseason. But this year, the constant cold kept many visitors away, he said.
“Absolutely, I’m ready,” Vratis said of spring break.
Preparing for crowds
Island hotels last week were reporting brisk bookings and most shops and restaurants were increasing staff and inventory to prepare for what they hope will be busy weeks ahead.
The Galveston Park Board of Trustees on Saturday officially opened the beach parks after crews last week raked sand and dusted off pavilions. Amusement attractions such as Moody Gardens, the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and the Kemah Boardwalk were preparing for large crowds and to showcase some new attractions.
Ready for sunshine
Tourism-based businesses expect there to be some pent-up demand for family getaways.
The cold winter had chilled the booking pace for island hotels, but when the sun came out Thursday, phones at local properties began ringing, Paul Schultz, president of Galveston Hotel & Lodging Association, said.
“I think the fact that people have been trapped in their homes and not getting out, they’re ready to enjoy the sunshine and spring break,” Schultz said.
Schultz, who also is vice president of hospitality for Landry’s Inc., which owns such properties as the San Luis Resort and Hilton on the island, along with Boardwalk Inn in Kemah, said he expects hotels to be full during spring break.
‘It’s absolutely huge’
For many island businesses, spring break is one of the most important revenue generators of the year.
“It’s absolutely huge,” said Danny Hart, a principal in Galveston Restaurant Group, which operates seven popular island eateries, including Mario’s Seawall Italian Restaurant, Saltwater Grill and Gumbo Bar. “It springboards us into summertime and gets us through April.”
Islanders are accustomed to life slowing down in the winter months. But this winter was particularly brutal, Hart said.
“February was a very tough month,” Hart said. “We’re looking forward to great weather and having the island back.”
Weather or not?
Hart and others have been closely tracking the weather.
While extended forecasts last week weren’t calling for anything like perfect spring break weather, they did predict significantly better conditions than those that have marked this winter as one of the coldest and wettest in recent years.
The National Weather Service on Thursday was forecasting highs of about 60 degrees on the island for most of this week, with warmer temperatures inland. The forecast called for mostly cloudy skies at the start of the week, then gradually clearing and set rain chances at only 20 percent to 40 percent for the first of week of spring break.
Weather Underground, which hazards guesses further into to the future, predicted about the same conditions for the second week.
‘Coming to see us’
But even if temperatures are on the cool side, crowds will come if rain stays away, Mark A. Kane, divisional vice president of Landry’s Amusement Division, said.
“If the sun is shining, they’re coming to see us,” Kane said.
Landry’s area amusements include the Galveston Island Historic Pleasure Pier and Kemah Boardwalk.
“We look forward to this time of year and we’re fortunate spring break lasts two weeks,” Kane said.
Kemah Boardwalk’s 400-foot-long zip line, called the Iron Eagle, will be new to most spring breakers.
‘A pretty solid week’
Moody Gardens on the island also will introduce its new Real Pirates exhibition, featuring more than 150 artifacts from the wreck site of the Whydah, the world’s first authenticated pirate ship found in American waters.
Moody Gardens allows its members to get first viewings of such exhibits. Based on interest and a sneak preview for members Friday that hundreds attended, spring break should be strong, Moody Gardens spokeswoman Sydney O’Drobinak said.
“I think we’re going to have a pretty solid week as far as visitors go,” O’Drobinak said.
Bookings at the Moody Gardens Hotel were strong, both from spring break and group business, O’Drobinak said.
Selling frosty treats when it’s frosty outside isn’t easy. Business was unusually slow this winter at Rita’s Italian Ice Galveston on the Seawall.
The island winter usually comes in small stints with many warm days in between.
“This winter it got cold and stayed colder longer,” Rita’s owner, Esther McKenna, said. “As you can imagine, people aren’t looking for cold desserts.”
But last week, McKenna was busy staffing up, accepting large deliveries of products and looking forward to a strong season.
“I need it,” McKenna said. “It’s time.”
Spring break often is a barometer of the summer season to come.
“Spring break is an indicator for the rest of the tourist season,” Kelly de Schaun, executive director of the park board, said. But if crowds stay away because of rain, that doesn’t mean tourism will be slow all summer, de Schaun said.
And because the island is a popular family destination during spring break, many people have already booked their hotels or rental houses in advance and likely will come rain or shine.
Most people are ready to soak up some sun, de Schaun said.
“After a cold winter, I think people are anxious to get to Galveston and enjoy the island atmosphere,” she said.