History Holidays in Florida

Most people who visit Florida do so because they’re beguiled by the modern face of the state – the theme parks, the restaurants, the shopping and the nightlife. There are others who come to enjoy the wildlife, and even fewer who are attracted by the state’s history. These latter are the smart ones.

Yes, the Sunshine State is packed with contemporary creature comforts and mod cons; yes, the attractions are first class and the range of activities quite dazzling; and yes, there is plenty to do in all the main cities. But to ignore the history of this region is to miss out on an essential part of the story of your holiday, the backdrop to the ‘why’ it is here, and some of the most fascinating elements it has to offer.

Just consider these two little factoids – the prehistory of Florida dates back at least 12,000 years. And the oldest city in North America is right here, too, with the first European explorers arriving in 1513, when Henry VIII was still fighting the French at the Battle of the Spurs. The advance guard hailed from Spain, via Puerto Rico, led by Juan Ponce de Leon, who claimed the new land for his country and named it after the Spanish holiday Pascua Florida, or the Easter feast of the flowers, hence it should really be called the Flower State.

Colonial Conquests

The state was fought over by Spain, France, Britain, Spain again and then the US, before the Spanish finally ceded the territory to America in 1821, which then led to the two Seminole Wars and the state’s part in the Civil War. That was followed by the advent of the citrus industry in the late 1800s, and the arrival of the railroads, as led by Henry Flagler’s East Coast Line and his grand desire to take the railway all the way down to Key West, which he achieved in 1912.

That, in turn, led to mass tourism and the modern history of Florida – as the world’s favourite holiday playground. A certain Walter Elias Disney decided that Orlando would be the perfect place to develop his newest project, a whole new World, and, when that opened in 1971, the tourism face of the Sunshine State was assured.

The European who first laid claim to the state was, of course, looking for the fabled Fountain of Youth – as well as more riches for the King of Spain – and, while Ponce de Leon certainly didn’t find it (he was mortally wounded in a battle with the Timucuan Native Americans in 1521), that didn’t stop the city of St Augustine (founded 1565) setting up its own site for the Fountain on an archaeological site created in the 1860s.

Florida Dinosaur museum