In April 1513, the Spanish monarchy contracted the explorer to find another island off of Cuba that was rumoured to have great riches. Instead he landed in Florida and named it “La Florida,” after the “feast of the flowers” during Spain’s Easter celebrations.
Although Florida’s history dates back more than 12,000 years with Native Americans, the statewide campaign “Viva Florida 500” will highlight the start of a new era with de Leon’s adventurous voyage to the New World.
“He was the first visitor to the United States,” says Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation. “That’s 500 years of explorers and they kept coming back.”
Many visitors may know Florida mostly for its 1,300 kilometres of beaches or as the theme park capital of the world, but the “Viva Florida” campaign is designed to broaden their outlook, Seccombe says. The state will host 150 celebrations that “highlight cultural diversity and the art culture history that makes up the fabric of our communities.”
After de Leon’s visit, European settlers colonized in present-day St. Augustine, the nation’s oldest city. Visitors to the city can find many references to the Spanish colonial era, from the massive Castillo de San Marcos fort that protected the city from attack, to the colorful Spanish architecture and narrow streets. (Full-scale replicas of Ponce de Leon’s flagship will visit the city in April).
De Leon probably wasn’t the first European to set foot in Florida, and there is even debate on where he landed exactly: Melbourne Beach, St. Augustine or South Ponte Vedra Beach. But all of these suggested spots are based on fairly tenuous documentation.
“It’s unlikely we will ever know the precise landing spot,” says Francis, Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. “There is no archaeological footprint. No logbook. And even if found, there’s no guarantee we would even know from that.”
“Over time, that story became more embellished,” Francis says. “What started as a myth ended up in the writings of later historians and chroniclers as history.”
Kicking off the 2013 celebration of European discovery was “La Gran Naranja” or the “Big Orange” drop — a 35-foot LED neon orange LCD descending from the side of a downtown Miami hotel on New Year’s Eve. The word naranja comes from the sweet Valencia orange the Spanish introduced to America, later becoming Florida’s official state fruit.
Throughout the year, 150 events across the state will mark the anniversary: Drive the Spanish Heritage Trail. Dive on historic shipwrecks. Tour a Spanish basilica and mission village. Visit orange groves and cattle ranches. Taste the flavours of Florida.
JUST THE FACTS