Cultural, heritage events celebrate Florida’s 500th anniversary

The Galleon, a replica of the vessels that traveled the coasts of Florida between the 16th and 18th centuries, will be stopping at ports this year to celebrate Viva Florida 500.
Nao Victoria Foundation
The Galleon, a replica of the vessels that traveled the coasts of Florida between the 16th and 18th centuries, will be stopping at ports this year to celebrate Viva Florida 500.

These days, Florida welcomes more than 87 million tourists a year, but five centuries ago, when Juan Ponce de Leon landed on what is now known as the east coast of Florida, visits from afar were rare. The Spanish explorer’s voyage, a failed attempt to find gold, brought European settlers to the land inhabited by Native Americans and launched a new era in Florida’s history.

To celebrate the New World discovery in 1513, the Sunshine State is hosting a long list of cultural and heritage events under the campaign
“Viva Florida 500.”

“This is the first time in modern memory that Florida as a state is prominently promoting its history and cultural heritage,” said Kerri Post, deputy secretary of state in the Office of Cultural, Historical and Information Programs and one of the people guiding community efforts. “We’re known for our beaches and our theme parks, but our history gets overlooked. So we look at the anniversary as an opportunity to examine our heritage, not just Spanish but also African-American, Caribbean, Native American. Florida has always been multicultural.”


More than 300 happenings are on the calendar statewide, with some communities still in the planning phase.

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“Our goal is to have events in all of Florida’s 67 counties,” Post said. “After all, this is our opportunity to talk about 500 years of history, something no other state can claim.”

Many of the celebrations focus on history, including reenacting milestone events, especially Ponce de Leon’s landing; others pay homage to Florida’s natural side, Post said.

One, called FLOR500, is a participatory art, nature, and history project being developed at Florida International University in Miami where 500 Florida artists are invited to depict 500 native wildflowers that were growing in 1513.

 Others focus on coastal and inland waterways. “Our heritage is not just by land, it’s also by sea,” Post said. “And we want to spread the conservation message as well. We’re not just looking at our nautical history 500 years past, but also what our waterways are going to be like 500 years from now.”


Coastal stewardship is the main aim of Expedition Florida 500, arguably the most ambitious of Viva Florida 500 events. Led by Justin Riney of Vero Beach and sponsored in part by Quicksilver, a crew of paddlers from across the country is exploring the entire state by standup paddleboard. Along the way, they paddle with locals and organize waterway cleanups.

“The adventure is amazing, but I want people to know that it’s really about conservation,” Riney said on the phone during his second week out. That morning, as the paddlers approached Destin, on the Florida Panhandle, they were greeted by a pod of cresting dolphins, a scene captured on video and posted to Expedition 500’s Facebookpage, where the public can follow the group’s trip.

Following are some Viva Florida 500 highlights. Several are in St. Augustine, considered to be where Ponce de Leon first dropped anchor. All events and updates can be found at

Through Dec. 31, Expedition Florida 500, statewide

This yearlong water adventure is a signature Viva Florida 500 event. Using standup paddle boards, Riney and crew are first traversing the state’s coastline and then will turn inland, exploring the rivers, lakes, estuaries, and marshlands that make up Florida’s freshwater ecosystem. Through its Facebook page, the expedition, whose goal is to highlight waterway stewardship, regularly posts invitations for the public to join them in paddling and cleanup efforts.,

Through Dec. 31, Navigating New Worlds: Identity, Perception & Politics in Florida, Tallahassee

The double-sided Secunda etas Mundi map from 1493 is among the rare maps and Florida historical artifacts spanning more than 400 years on display from the Michael W. and Dr. Linda M. Fisher Collection in this museum exhibit. The maps depict the influence of Europeans on Florida, as well as the continuity of various cultures and languages throughout the state’s transformation. Free. Florida Historic Capitol Museum, 400 South Monroe St., 850-487-1902,

Opening in March, Colonial Quarter, St. Augustine


This living-history museum commemorating the discovery of “La Florida” opens in the former site of Spanish Quarter Village, expanding the original site’s focus to include St. Augustine’s Spanish and British periods and the influences of African-American and Native American cultures. It will include exhibits, shows, taverns, and restaurants to immerse visitors in the historical experience. About $10-$30.  33 St. George St., 877-467-5863,

Through May 11, “Picasso: Art & Arena,” St. Augustine
This exhibit features 39 pieces from the Fundacion Picasso in Spain that have never been displayed in the United States. Pablo Picasso created them between 1929 and 1961, in different styles and media, and all focused on bullfighting. $5-$10. Visitor Information Center, 10 West Castillo Drive, 904-825-1000,

Through June 28, “Native Floridians: Seminole & Miccosukee Art and Culture,” Boca Raton
Pre-European settlers are the focus of this exhibit, which features the collection of Patsy West, director of the Seminole Miccosukee Archives, and contains images, clothing, and artifacts relating to the history of South Florida’s Native American people. $3-$5.  Boca Raton Historical Society, Town Hall, 71 North Federal Highway, 561-395-6766, www.bocahisto

Feb. 9, Flight to Freedom, St. Augustine

History comes alive at the site of Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, the first legally sanctioned, free African settlement in what is now the United States. Guided tours relate tales of oppression, resistance, and the struggle for freedom. $2. Fort Mose Historic State Park, 5 Fort Mose Trail, 904-823-2232,

Feb. 16, At First Contact: A Fierce People, Port Charlotte

This collaborative living-history presentation follows the Calusa Indians at the time of their contact with the Spanish. Program includes a re-created Calusa village on the shores of Charlotte Harbor. 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., free. Bayshore Live Oak Park, 23157 Bayshore Road, Charlotte Harbor, 941-629-7278,

March 1-2, Lighthouse Maritime Festival, St. Augustine

The annual lighthouse festival expands to feature the nighttime event “Oh My Stars,” a look at how mariners navigate their ships using the location of celestial bodies. Other activities include wooden boatbuilding and a shipyard play area for children. $3-$25.  St. Augustine Lighthouse & Museum, 81 Lighthouse Ave., 904-829-0745,

March 9-10, Old Florida Festival, Naples

Spend a day with a Calusa Indian, a Seminole family, a Civil War soldier, a Cracker cattleman, or a Spanish conquistador at this festival that brings together dozens of costumed time travelers, historical reenactors, and artisans. More than 10 centuries of life on the Southwest Florida frontier are re-created. $2-$5.  Collier County Museum, 3331 US 41 East, 239-252-8476,

March 23-24, Ponce de Leon Festival, Punta Gorda

Join the Royal Order of the Ponce de Leon Conquistadors as they commemorate Ponce de Leon’s stop in Charlotte Harbor. Festivities include a reenactment of the landing, a “Festival of Flowers” parade through downtown, and the chance to meet costumed conquistadors. Free. Laishley Park, 100 Nesbit St., 941-639-3720,

April 3, Landing of Ponce de Leon, Discovery of Florida, St. Augustine

This signature event commemorates the 500th anniversary of Ponce de Leon’s landing. Events include a ceremonial reenactment of the landing at the downtown bayfront, a Mass at Cathedral Basilica of St. Augustine, and the dedication of a reproduction baptismal font on which Ponce de Leon was baptized. Various locations. 904-825-1053,

April 2-5, Commemorating Ponce de Leon, Melbourne Beach

Costumed interpreters plan to land a replica ship to commemorate Ponce de Leon’s landing, which some say was on what is now Melbourne Beach. Events include an Air Force flyover, 21-gun salute, and erection of a Ponce de Leon statue.

April 29-May 6, Fleet Week Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale

To salute Viva Florida 500, tall ships are expected to participate in this annual event that focuses on Florida’s rich maritime history. Port Everglades Seaport, 954-649-4777,

May 11, 17th-Century Military Muster, Tallahassee

At Mission San Luis, where Apalachee Indians and Spanish missionaries lived together, experience pageantry and powder in this reenacted military muster. $2-$5, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.  2100 West Tennessee St., 850-245-6406,

May 10-19, Romanza Week, St. Augustine

Three dozen cultural organizations are collaborating to produce more than 60 shows and exhibits during this 10-day music and art extravaganza throughout downtown. Celebrations include art exhibits, performances, culinary events, and historical reenactments. 800-653-2489,

Oct. 3-5, International Spanish Food and Wine Festival, St. Augustine

Local and regional restaurants will fan out across St. Augustine’s promenade for a festival celebrating Spanish food, wine, and dance. Starting at Visitor Information Center, 10 West Castillo Drive, 904-825-1000,

Nov. 30-Dec. 8, Maritime Heritage Festival, St. Augustine

Boats from tall ships to fishing skiffs will celebrate seafaring history at the country’s oldest port. The festival will start with the launch of a high-tech sailing voyage around the world and include maritime exhibits and activities. St. Augustine Municipal Marina, 111 Avenida Menendez, 904-825-1000,

Diane Daniel can be reached at