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Daytona Beach works to lose its party town reputation

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    Once considered a spring break hotspot for party goers (left), Daytona is now an affordable family destination. Kids can pet stingrays at the Marine Science Center (right) in nearby Ponce Inlet, where admission for a family of four is just $14. (AP/ Suzanne Rowan Kelleher)

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    Beaches, once crowded by spring breakers, are prime spots for families. (Suzanne Rowan Kelleher)

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    Daytona International Speedway's $400-million expansion is slated for completion in January 2016. (The Associated Press)

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    Cabanas and fire pits draw families to the pool deck at The Shores Resort & Spa, Daytona Beach's only AAA four-diamond property. (Suzanne Rowan Kelleher)

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    The Hyatt Place Daytona Beach-Oceanfront opened in October 2013, and is one of several new hotels coming to Daytona Beach. (Hyatt Place Daytona Beach-Oceanfront)

Like a celebrity with a colorful past, destinations can find it hard to shake a notorious reputation. There may be no better example than Daytona Beach, once a poster child for outrageous spring break antics and now a destination focused on family-friendly affordability.

Soon after MTV began broadcasting “Spring Break” in 1986, Daytona Beach became known as a place where tanned and toned college kids got drunk and humiliated themselves in front of a crowd of raucous peers. Though it’s been decades since MTV’s crew packed up and left town, Internet search engines and some travel writers haven’t gotten the memo.

"We continue to field requests from the press and writers who still think Daytona Beach is a college party destination."

- Gentry Baumline-Robinson, communications manager at the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitor Bureau

“With Internet search, if you get tagged with a keyword, it sticks,” said Gentry Baumline-Robinson, communications manager at the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitor Bureau. “We continue to field requests from the press and writers who still think Daytona Beach is a college party destination, though we no longer have the organized activities for the college spring break crowd. We have activities and hotels that really cater to the family market now.”

This is not news to J.D. O’Connell of Ballston Spa, N.Y., who has brought his kids to Daytona Beach four times in the last nine years. “We love the beach in Daytona,” he said. “You can drive your car on the sand, so you don’t have to park miles away. And the beaches are really clean, with a lot of restaurants and comfort in the area.” Like many families, the O’Connells often combine several days in Daytona with a few days at Orlando theme parks, an hour away.

Daytona’s family-friendly drumbeat has been growing louder in recent years as it experiences a tourism renaissance fueled by an influx of investment. The recently opened Hyatt Place Daytona Beach-Oceanfront will be joined by a new Marriott Residence Inn later this year and a Hard Rock Hotel & Café in 2016. Other large projects include the Cici and Hyatt Brown Museum of Art, which will house the world’s largest collection of Florida art, and a massive $400 million expansion at Daytona International Speedway that’s slated for completion in early 2016.

While Hyatt Place is primarily marketed to business travelers, the Daytona property’s beachfront location, large guest rooms and free hot breakfast make it “perfect for families,” according to Andrew Wright, the hotel’s sales director. Wright expects families to make up at least 50 percent of the clientele, and he says rates will remain budget-friendly. A guest room with two queen beds and a pullout queen sofa bed that can accommodate a family of six will run about $150 a night, on average, this summer.

Even more surprising is how affordable rates are at The Shores Resort & Spa, the only AAA four-diamond property in the area.  This summer, a family of four can stay at the beachfront resort for as little as $134 a night.

“This is a boutique hotel and wasn’t necessarily built with families in mind, but families came here anyway. And so we adapted,” said Susan Keaveney, marketing manager at The Shores, who estimates that 65 to 70 percent of guests arrive with kids in tow.

A few years ago, after noticing how many families were booking stays, The Shores took steps to be more kid-friendly, doing away with linen tablecloths in the dining room, introducing a supervised kids’ club on weekend nights and starting an afternoon children’s activity program. One small change led to another. “We put a grill outside so families can order food outside without having to stop what they’re doing, and we’ve got an ice cream truck that comes around in the afternoon,” Keaveney said. “We’re upscale, but not at all stuffy.” 

While families may outnumber college kids these days, some things haven’t changed. In a state known for gorgeous beaches, Daytona’s 23-mile stretch of sand remains a standout. “Here in Daytona, we’ve got some of the cleanest beaches you’ll find anywhere,” said Wright, who grew up in Tampa. “And we’ve got actual waves on this side of the state, whereas the water on the Gulf side is relatively flat.”

“Compared to many Florida destinations, Daytona Beach has many more hotels where you can literally open your door and have your feet in the sand in minutes,” said Keaveney. “And we have many beachfront parks where you can park your car for free even if you’re not staying in a beachfront property.”

Folks in Daytona’s tourism industry insist that the best is yet to come. “It’s so exciting to watch how Daytona Beach is changing, and I can’t wait to see it two years from now,” Keaveney said. “Every day I see hotels refreshing themselves, or new hotels opening up, and everything that’s happening at the Speedway. Everything is getting bigger and bolder and brighter.”

Suzanne Rowan Kelleher is the family vacations expert at About.com.