Thanks to MTV and Girls Gone Wild, spring break in the late 20th century got a bit of a reputation. Between misplaced bikini tops, wet t-shirt contests and cheap beer flowing steady as the tide, the mid-March madness is often about as wholesome as Cinemax after midnight.
But it wasn’t always this way. Back in 1947, when LIFE accompanied 10,000 young men and women to Balboa Beach in Southern California for spring break, the shenanigans wouldn’t have scored any higher than a PG rating. Daylight brought beachside dancing, boat races, beauty pageants and sunbathing. The evening hours found students aglow in the warmth of bonfires as portable radios churned out the tunes of the day. (Top hits that year included “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” and “Chi-Baba, Chi-Baba (My Bambino Go to Sleep).”)
In the following decades, the chasteness of spring break loosened with changing sexual mores. The 1960 movie Where the Boys Are, which followed four college women on a spring vacation to Fort Lauderdale, reflected a range of sexual attitudes in its characters’ hopes for a week on the beach. One was looking for a husband, while others considered the benefits of premarital sex.
The film, released during the winter, inspired throngs of students to flock to Florida, and for more than just the sunshine. Simultaneously, it frightened parents into exercising any remaining shred of authority to stand between their daughters and the debauchery depicted in the movie. Some, according to LIFE, shelled out to send their kids anywhere but Fort Lauderdale.
“I’m not sure the moral climate is any safer on these Bermuda cruises,” one mother said, “but at least she’ll get in trouble with a higher class of boy.”
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.