Fountain of Youth: Discovering Spanish Florida

Lisa Fritscher February 9, 2011 No Comments

Fountain of Youth - Spanish Florida

Drink from the legendary Fountain of Youth

Settled by the Spanish in 1565, St. Augustine, Florida is the oldest continuously-occupied city in the continental United States. St. Augustine was actually discovered by accident by explorer Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513. Legend has it that Ponce de Leon set out from Puerto Rico in search of the island of Bimini, where he was told he could find the restorative Fountain of Youth. Ponce de Leon found Florida instead, and came ashore alongside a fountain that he believed was indeed the Fountain of Youth.

The Fountain first opened as a tourist attraction in 1901, operated by Diamond Lil’ of the Alaskan Klondike Gold Rush. Lil’ charged a small fee for a drink from the fountain and a short presentation. Today the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park is a full-day tribute to the history of Spanish Florida.


Fountain of Youth Entrance, Florida

The entrance sets the stage for the day ahead

As of 2011, admission to the Fountain of Youth is $10 for adults, $9 for seniors aged 60 and over, and $6 for children aged 6 to 12. Kids under 6 are free. Discounts are available for AAA members and active duty military, and St. John’s County residents are free. However, Fountain of Youth tickets are also included in a wide range of tour packages. Check with the Visitor Center in St. Augustine for ticket package options. Parking is free, and the Fountain of Youth is a stop for all local tourist trolleys. Your admission fee includes all exhibits and special programs at the park.

Spring House

Fountain of Youth Filtered Water

The water is treated and filtered, but tastes like sulfur

Your tour starts in the spring house, where the Fountain is located. Enjoy a free cup of water from the Fountain while listening to a guide explain nearly 500 years of history. Today the water is treated and filtered, ensuring that it meets modern standards for drinking water. However, the spring imparts a heavily sulfur taste. You may want to warn your kids about the taste before they try it. The guided presentation is geared toward families and kids, and provides a lot of information in a short, entertaining way. There are also several historical exhibits in the building.


Fountain of Youth Planetarium

Arrive early to check out the old navigational instruments

The planetarium show is great fun for both kids and adults. Sit back and relax in a comfortable seat while stars are projected on the dome that surrounds you. A soundtrack explains how Ponce de Leon and his traveling party were able to find Florida using the stars for reference. Try to arrive a few minutes early to check out the displays of early navigational tools in the lobby.

Discovery Globe

The 1959 Discovery Globe

The 1959 Discovery Globe is low-tech but very cool

The discovery globe is a very old-school, but very cool, exhibit. A massive 3D illuminated globe at the front of the room demonstrates the routes used by Spanish explorers to the New World and highlights various Spanish towns throughout the United States. The discovery globe presentation has changed little since its inception in 1959, making it a fascinating look at early tourism technology.

Indian Exhibits

History Interpreters Share the Native American Culture

Living history interpreters share the Native American culture of the era

The Native Americans played a crucial role in teaching the Spanish settlers to adapt to their strange new home. A series of exhibits document the lifestyle of Native Americans in Florida in the 1500s. Living history interpreters demonstrate native games and crafts, and children are invited to participate.

Native Christian Burial Ground

The Native Christian Burial Ground

The Native Christian Burial Ground is morbid yet fascinating

Perhaps the most morbidly fascinating exhibit at the Fountain of Youth is the Native Christian Burial Ground. In 1934, workers planting orange groves in St. Augustine unearthed a collection of human bones. When the Smithsonian certified the location as the first Christian Indian burial ground, dating to the 1500s, the bones were moved to a permanent exhibit inside the Fountain of Youth Archeological Park. Each skeleton was carefully laid out in the same position that it was found.

Native Christian Burial Ground Exhibit Photos

A black and white photo shows what the original exhibit looked like

Although the display was heavily disturbed by Hurricane Donna in 1960, the skeletons remained on exhibit to the public until 1991. Informational signs told visitors the story of the discovery, as well as some details about Indian burials in the 1500s. In 1991, the Timucua Indian Nation requested that the skeletons be reinterred according to current Native American practice. While the bones are long gone, the exhibit remains. The old information signs still stand, alongside photos of the original display and new signage that explains the reburial.

Today the exhibit bears silent witness to the changing face of American tourism. From the 1930s until the 1990s, it was perfectly acceptable for tourists to gawk at real human bones. Today it is seen as unacceptable. But is this true for all bones under all circumstances? Certainly mummies are still on display around the world, and the controversial Bodies Exhibition has toured the country for more than five years. Perhaps it isn’t the fact that they were human bones, but the fact that they were Native American bones. Maybe the display and subsequent reburial actually tell us more about the dynamic and ever-changing relationship between Native Americans and European Americans than they do about our taste for looking at bones themselves.

Whatever your thoughts and feelings about the Native Christian Burial Ground, it serves as an excellent jumping-off point for conversations. A slightly odd energy seems to hang over the exhibit, particularly when your family is in the building alone. Be prepared for questions from your kids, and perhaps from your significant other as well.

Tips for Parents

Fountain of Youth Friendly Peacocks Florida

The friendly peacocks are everywhere

The Fountain of Youth Archeological Park has changed little since its inception. Instead, it stands as a well-conceived, low-tech tourist attraction that is great fun for all ages. Don’t look for sophisticated computer systems or interactive displays. Instead, focus on the extremely knowledgeable employees who have perfected their presentations through years of practice.

Although your guide map will give a suggested route through the exhibits, you are not required to follow that plan. Each building’s presentation repeats on a regular basis, generally every 15 to 30 minutes depending on season. We were there at the same time as an enormous school group, so rather than pack in with the kids we skipped ahead by one exhibit. We had a 20-minute initial wait, and then had every exhibit almost to ourselves.

The massive, well-manicured grounds are dotted with picnic tables and benches. Friendly peacocks and squirrels scamper and play, and most are docile enough to be hand-fed. Pack a picnic, take your time, and enjoy one of Florida’s last remaining pre-Disney tourist attractions.

avatarAbout the Author:

Lisa is a full-time travel writer. She lives in an RV with her disabled father and writes about their experiences. Although she has no children of her own, Lisa loves being an Aunt to her own relatives and the children of all her friends. You can follow her adventures on her blog, Travel Confessions.

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