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Florida celebrates 500th anniversary

April 2, 2013 at 3:30 PM ET

Ken Detzner news conference
Courtesy Chris Cate
Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner announces the start of Viva Florida 500 Week in Tallahassee on Monday.

Magic kingdoms, princesses and roller coasters usually dominate the itineraries of Florida visitors, but this week a Spanish explorer and a big moment in history are overshadowing them all.

Tuesday marks the 500th anniversary of Juan Ponce de León becoming the first recorded European to land on Florida's shores, or anywhere else in the current United States. Historians believe the event happened on or around April 2, 1513.

Arriving right around Easter, Ponce de León named the new land La Florida, meaning the "land of flowers” and a reference to “Pascua Florida,” the Feast of Flowers -- Spain’s Easter celebration.

The state is marking the occasion with Viva Florida 500, a year-long celebration that began in January and is hitting a crescendo right now with “Viva Florida 500 Week.

We’re highlighting this to really stand out as the week within the year when that important moment in history occurred,” Chris Cate, a spokesman for the Florida Department of State, told NBC News.

“We think it’s a big deal not just from a tourism standpoint but an educational standpoint as well.”

A re-enactment of Ponce de León’s landing and the unveiling of a 10-foot statue of the explorer is taking place in Melbourne Beach on Tuesday.

If you missed that celebration, another re-enactment of the landing will take place in St. Augustine on Wednesday, complete with the firing of cannons from the Castillo de San Marcos. Meanwhile, the U.S. Post Office will commemorate the anniversary with the unveiling of the “La Florida” Forever stamp.

On Thursday, historical documents rarely glimpsed by the public -- including the state’s original 1838 Constitution and a 1586 map of Sir Francis Drake's West Indian voyage -- will go on display in the Department of State's Museum of Florida History.

But perhaps the most anticipated event is the arrival of “El Galeón,” a 170-foot, 495-ton wooden replica of a 16-century Spanish galleon. The ship left Puerto Rico on Monday and is sailing toward Florida, where it will call on ports in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Cape Canaveral and St. Augustine later this month.

Tourism officials hope all that focus on history will expand travelers’ perceptions of the state, showing them it’s not all just about beaches and theme parks.

“By offering visitors a whole new reason to explore the Sunshine State in 2013 with events such as the upcoming arrival of El Galeon, we are continuing to increase the economic impact of travelers to Florida,” said Will Seccombe, president and CEO of Visit Florida, in a statement.

The goal is not just to attract more travelers, but to also convince the tourists who have come to visit a theme park to stay an extra day to explore Florida’s historic sites, Cate said. The state is reaching out to international visitors as well.

“This is a message we really want to carry world-wide… I do think there’s a lot of interest for overseas visitors to come to Florida and see how they helped shape our state,” Cate said, noting that beyond Spanish rule, the region was also under the British flag and the French flag during its history.

You can check out all of the events taking place as part of Viva Florida 500 on the initiative’s official website.

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