If Ponce de Leon met an alligator when he landed on April 2, 1513 it’s hard to say which one of them would have jumped first – the leathery gator or the metal clad conquistador. They are both still a big part of St. Augustine, Florida’s culture, 451 years later. The city’s history is full of tales of pirates, adventurers, soldiers and villains. Some say their spirits are still hanging around, but that might just be gallows humour. If gators, gunpowder and ghosts give you a thrill here are some great places that are sure to please the explorers in your family.
A Blast from the Past
Take a sip of natural water from Ponce’s Spring of Eternal Hope at the Fountain of Youth Archaeological Park. It may not keep you young, but it never hurts to stay hydrated. Visit the Navigators Planetarium to learn about celestial navigation; trace Spanish sailing routes in the 3-storey Discovery Globe then follow the shady, tree-lined paths to the watchtower, mission church and boat house. A 16th century, 6-pound cannon fires a deafening round every hour and a 1500’s Spanish matchlock gun fills the air with gunpowder at the historic firearms presentation.
Thousands of years before the Spanish arrived, the Timucuan Native Americans lived on this site. Archaeologists are still digging up artifacts from both cultures on the grounds. Exciting ancient cultural practices like atlatl spear hurling take place in the reconstructed village. Adults $15; children 6 – 12 $9; 12 and under, free.
Bring Out the Big Guns
Want more firepower? Kids will love the easy to explore Castillo de San Marcos National Monument that has protected Matanzas Bay since 1672. They can earn a coveted Junior Ranger badge by roaming the rooms and bastions of the two-story masonry fort while learning about colonial and military life.
Polished iron and bronze cannons stand ready to spark young imaginations on the top gun deck. Look for the 16-pound intricately cast bronze gun made in Barcelona Spain in 1743 named El Camilo. It could hit a target three miles away. Cannons and muskets are fired off on weekends during the 1740 Spanish Siege Cannon Firing Drill by staff and volunteers dressed in 18th century Spanish wool uniforms. Park Rangers give entertaining interpretive talks daily in the courtyard. Adult admission $10; free for children.
Come aboard the St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum, located right across the street from the Castillo. A museum that’s built like a pirate ship, every inch is packed with interactive displays. The Captain’s Cabin has a virtual library on the golden age of piracy and kids can raise the Jolly Roger or fire up a cannon on the gun deck. Prepare to be dazzled by displays of real pirate gold and artifacts once owned by famous privateers like Sir Frances Drake and Captain Kidd. Go below deck to Disney’s Blackbeard show if you dare – the Captain tells his tale in total darkness. Kids can search through Discovery Drawers to earn their own treasure and everyone will enjoy the Hollywood Pirates exhibit. Adults $13.99; children 5-12 $6.99; free for ages 4 and under.
Pirates and crocodiles go together like Captain Hook and Tick-Tock. The St. Augustine Alligator Farm has every species of crocodilian on display including Komodo dragons, king cobras and a giant python. The main draw has to be the alligator lagoon where dozens of the huge leather backed loungers are pressed together soaking up the sun. Look for Bomber, the largest gator at 4.2 meters long and 363 kilos. There’s lots more to see here between alligator feedings. Visit the Birds of Africa exhibit or the Native Bird Rookery where herons, egrets and storks nest above your head. If you’d like to get a birds-eye view of the farm, try the zip line or the aerial course and tip-toe above 7 acres of alligators, crocs and lemurs. Adult admission $24.99; children 3 – 11 $13.99; free for under 3; additional fees for zip line courses.
The Boo Crew
Some say that St. Augustine is the most haunted city in the USA, not just the oldest European settlement. Be a ghost hunter for a night on the Ghosts and Gravestones Frightseeing Tour. Spooky sites include a graveyard, Potter’s Wax Museum, the Old Drugstore and a haunted jail. The costumed guides dish out equal parts laughter and chills with tales of murder, unrequited love and wandering souls. You’ll have fun on the bus shouting “Unbeliever – Be doomed!” if you pass any skeptics. The scary stories told in the dark might be a bit intense for very young kids. Adults $27.93; children ages 3 – 12 $15.51 (check online for discounts).