Every spring, Panama City Beach hosts hundreds of thousands of college students, as they rush for the beach and the spring break of their lives. And while Panama City Beach locals like to think it’s the warm hospitality or the miles of white sand beaches, a true spring break aficionado knows that most of the spring breakers are just looking for the best place to party. With that in mind, I bring you the “Top 5 Party Spots in Panama City Beach.
#1 and #2: Club LaVela and Spinnaker Beach Club
These two just have to be grouped together (over the objections of their owners and managers) because while each is a super club in its own right, they are also neighbors, and together they form the epicenter of Panama City Beach’s Spring Break -- and maybe spring break in general. Both Club LaVela and Spinnaker are sprawling facilities, offering party-goers a taste of everything - from indoor rock concerts and dance floors pulsing with music and light, to spacious, open air decks overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.
Because both clubs are directly on the beach, the free access daytime party behind the clubs has become a gathering spot for both spring breakers and those marketing to the college students. You’re as likely to get signed up for a credit card (you’ll get a free t-shirt) as recruited to serve in the military (there’s often an obstacle course). And there’s always plenty of music and booze.
The crowd moves from one club to the other almost by the night - each club vying for the lines of spring breakers who will pay up to $35 in cover charges. If you plan to hit one more than a couple times, you’d be well served to check out a VIP card (you can pick them up during the daytime, and they often grant free entry, reduced prices on drinks, access to VIP areas, or the right to bypass lines). Another option is to get there early - often there’s a reduced cover, or no cover charge, before a certain time.
If there’s a distinction between the two clubs (debatable) it’s that Club LaVela has the reputation for throwing the raunchier parties. It’s here that you’re more likely to find the Foam Parties, the Wet T-Shirt Contests, or the crowds of dudes that will grind up on anything that walks by in a skirt. Meanwhile, Spinnaker markets itself as having a more laid-back vibe - Where LaVela hosts crowds in muscle shirts and mini-skirts, Spinnaker caters to the girls in sundresses and the guys in collared shirts and baseball hats.
Spinnaker Beach Club: 8795 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach - www.spinnakerbeachclub.com
Club LaVela: 8813 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach - clublavela.com
#3: Pier Bar at Pineapple Willies
About a half-mile west, and also sitting directly on the beach, is the Pier Bar at Pineapple Willies. Besides the beach, it has little else in common with the super clubs to its east, and Pineapple Willies the restaurant would have no business being on this list at all. However, a recent addition to this age-old establishment is the Pier Bar: A party shack if there ever was one.
What makes this place remarkable is that it’s obvious that whoever is in charge of booking the music really loves music. They bring in bands heavy on music talent, and light on name recognition.
The Pier Bar is basically a long, high ceilinged rectangular building with a bar running most of its length, a stage on one end, and a small open air deck on the other. Their beer prices are reasonable, but you probably won’t get out without at least trying one of their frozen drinks, served in a big souvenir plastic cup. After you buy the first one, refills are pretty reasonable on those, too.
The trick to know about the Pier Bar is that while there’s some parking in front, there’s usually not enough, and traffic tends to bottleneck near here. Your best bet is to park in the nearby Wal-Mart parking lot, and walk. What will take you 3-minutes to walk might take you 15 minutes to navigate in a car. Also, keep in mind that the Pier Bar is known to be tough on fake ID’s, so don’t try it.
Pier Bar at Pineapple Willy’s: 9875 South Thomas Drive - www.pwillys.com
#4: Tootsies Orchid Lounge
The only non-beachside party spot to make the list (it’s about 250 yards from the beach), Tootsies Orchid Lounge is a Nashville original that has finally blossomed in Panama City Beach. As someone who’s lived in Nashville, I am constantly baffled by the success of this place. On any given night, the PCB crowd is bigger and better than any I ever saw at the Tootsies in Nashville. In fact, the two bars are connected via video, so you can watch the Tootsies in Nashville from the one in PCB, and I’d bet the video sells a lot more tickets to PCB than to BNA.
At any rate, it’s a country music bar, so if you brought your boots to the beach, this is what you’re looking for. There’s almost always a country band playing, and the dance floor stays crowded. The beer is cold and cheap, and if it’s not your scene, it’s also in the middle of Pier Park - a complex packed with shops, restaurants, bars and even amusement park rides. That means when you get your fill of country music, Reggae J’s, Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, and the German-themed Hofbrau Beer Garden are all literally within a stone’s throw.
Tootsies in PCB: 700 Pier Park Drive, PCB. - www.tootsies.net/main_subpage.php?pg=thebeach
#5: Sharky’s Beach Club
In recent years, the spring break crowds have really been flocking to Sharky’s Beach Club. There success is almost alarming, and it could be attributed to the condos springing up nearby (Origin’s at Seahaven is just across Front Beach Road), but Sharky’s has also been really catering to the spring break crowd, bringing in big name bands or running spring break promotions.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the mostly open-air facility sits right on the beach... in fact, without the themed rooms and “something for everyone” intentions of the super clubs (Sharky’s is basically one big deck), you’ll feel closer to the beach here than any of the other party spots. And maybe that’s what you’re looking for. At any rate, you can expect a smaller dance floor, a thatched roof bar, frozen drinks, and a line at the door. You can also expect to NOT be able to park in the front parking lot, which probably only has about 30 spaces. Instead, you’ll park in a designated parking area across Front Beach Road and just a tad west. Sharky’s runs a golf cart shuttle for those who don’t want to walk. (If you ride with this guy, for Pete’s sake, give the dude a dollar.)
Be warned, though: When there’s not a crowd, Sharky’s seems a little rundown and sad (as opposed to spacious and pristine), and on occasion I’ve noticed the horrible smell of a thousand spoiled fruity drinks that were spilled through the deck in the days and weeks before wafting back up.
Sharky’s Beach Club: 15201 Front Beach Rd., Panama City Beach - www.SharkysBeach.com
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