State launches Viva Florida 500 campaign to lure visitors
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 5:38 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 5:38 p.m.
You're about to start seeing a lot of Juan Ponce de Leon, Spanish conquistador and alleged Fountain-of-Youth seeker who "discovered" Florida 500 years ago.
You can catch him, singing and dancing with toothsome, sequined pirates, at the Florida State Fair in Tampa.
A drawing of his ship will zoom around the track at the Daytona 500 on the haunches of a Chevy Corvette.
It's a puppet Ponce in North Port and a live one at a Deerfield Beach Renaissance festival, where he will frolic with "wenches, fairies and singing merrymen," according to its website.
All this is part of the state's Viva Florida 500 campaign, which is using the anniversary of Ponce de Leon's arrival to promote the state — and, maybe, a little history, too.
"It's a teachable moment and a marketing opportunity to highlight 500 years of history and cultural diversity — a claim that no other state can make," says Florida Secretary of State Ken Detzner.
Will Seccombe, president of Visit Florida, the state's tourism marketing agency, says a TV commercial featuring — you guessed it — Ponce de Leon will encourage visitors to stay a little longer to participate in some of the Viva Florida events.
If one out of 10 visitors stays an extra day, Seccombe said, it could represent an additional $1 billion in spending and create 15,000 jobs.
So far, 200 major events are planned statewide this year. An example locally is the annual re-enactment of the Battle of Olustee, which is staged east of Lake City where the Civil War skirmish took place.
Florida Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Nancy Detert, R-Venice, said she likes the Viva Florida campaign's emphasis on the state's positive side.
"This is a good opportunity for us to brand ourselves for all the fun stuff the state has to offer," Detert says.
The campaign has been in the works for at least a decade, although some recent discussions centered on whether this was purely a marketing opportunity or perhaps a chance to set the historical record straight.
While the Florida Humanities Council provides grants for community efforts that educate people on the historical context of Ponce de Leon's visit and the cultural significance of the state's relationship with Spain, some communities are applying the Viva Florida mantra more loosely.
The state fair, which opened last Thursday, features a cow mascot named Ponce Moo Leon in a conquistador helmet, along with a chance for visitors to become fair "cowquistadors" for getting a map stamped at various locations.
But its Broadway-style production of "Zoom ‘N Through 500 Years of Florida Fun" includes a dramatic shadow tableau depicting the lives of Florida's inhabitants before Europeans — along with the singing/dancing Ponce, actors extolling the glories of Florida citrus and beautiful mermaids swinging from the ceiling.
Several communities will celebrate Ponce de Leon's arrival, although it is disputed where he actually first set foot in the state. On April 2, a landing will be staged on Melbourne Beach, one of the communities that claims the site. The town will unveil a statue of the man of the hour and hold a parade in his honor.
Meanwhile, the Florida Lottery has launched a new scratch-off ticket game — called the "Florida Treasure Hunt" — that also directs players to an interactive site where they learn about the state's history while getting a chance to enter their tickets in a second prize drawing.
In Viva Florida's planning stages, some discussions centered on whether activities should celebrate or commemorate Ponce de Leon's visit.
There's a difference.
Some Florida scholars voiced concerns that accurate history would be ignored in a pure celebration, while a commemoration would allow residents and visitors to gain a more nuanced understanding of history.
Theresa Schober, an archaeologist in Lee County, used Florida Humanities Council and Lee Trust grants to set up programs on "Making History Memorable: The Impact of Representation on Authenticity."
"A lot of what is going on in-state is kind of kitschy," Schober said. "We want to bring an accurate history of Ponce de Leon.
"Many people get a sense of history from literature that might be false. We'll look at how we internalize imagery and stories about the past to construct our historical memory."
The first symposium on Saturday brought together leading literature and history scholars who have studied the writings and maps from the voyage of Ponce de Leon, Schober said.
Apparently, the cerebral stuff sells, too; as of Friday, Schober had reservations for all 95 seats and a long waiting list, and she was trying to arrange to post the lecture online.
State officials also are trying to persuade King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain to visit Florida in the coming year, although that might prove a tough sell.
Last year, Gov. Rick Scott had to apologize to the king after repeatedly asking about a controversial elephant hunt in Botswana. The monarch had been roundly criticized by Spaniards for taking the trip when his country is in financial peril, but Scott continued to bring it up, becoming the butt of jokes in Spain and in the U.S.
So far, no one can pinpoint exactly how much the Viva Florida campaign will cost the state before the year is out. Visit Florida allocated $1 million for promotions, and some state employees are integrating Viva Florida efforts into their regular jobs.
The Department of State has not budgeted any funds for the campaign, but is inviting partners to help, spokesman Chris Cate said. One advantage of piggy-backing Viva Florida activities onto ongoing festivals and community events is that costs will be minimized.
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