Long overlooked in favor of bigger tourist meccas like Orlando and Miami, Pensacola hopes a yearlong 450th birthday bash will lure visitors to this city on the western tip of the Panhandle.
Festivals, parades, battle re-enactments, art exhibits and other events will commemorate Spanish explorer Don Tristan de Luna's 1559 arrival at Pensacola Bay.
King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain set the tone with a royal visit Feb. 19, touring the city of 60,000 and visiting Pensacola Naval Air Station, home of the world-famous Blue Angels aerial demonstration team.
Sometimes derided as the gateway to Florida's "Redneck Riviera," that stretch of Panhandle beaches and kitsch attractions long favored by Southern tourists, many native Pensacolans would rather play up the city's history. Leaders dubbed Pensacola "The City of Five Flags" in the 1950s to recognize the Spanish, French, British, Confederate and American flags that have flown here.
St. Augustine, founded in 1565, bills itself as "The Nation's Oldest City," and has been continuously occupied since its establishment on Florida's Atlantic coast. Pensacola is known as the first settlement, because historians believe de Luna's failed 1559 attempt to colonize here was the first European settlement in the United States. A hurricane sank eight of de Luna's 11 ships and the settlement collapsed in 1561; the Spanish didn't return until the late 1600s, more than a century later.
"Pensacola has got a tremendous amount of history through all periods. There was the Spanish defeat of the British here in 1781. Andrew Jackson came here in 1821. We had a lot of Civil War action here. In 1913, the airplane came and this place became the Cradle of Naval Aviation," said local historic preservationist J. Earle Bowden, 80, a former editor of the Pensacola News Journal.
"St. Augustine, all they've got is that little Spanish town — it never grew much," said Bowden, referring to the collection of Spanish buildings that have long drawn tourists to St. Augustine.
Pensacola's efforts to promote itself have been hurt by the difficulty in getting there. Pensacola Regional Airport now has six airlines offering service to Atlanta, Dallas, Charlotte, N.C., Houston, Memphis, Orlando and Tampa. But unlike other Florida tourist attractions, the city has never been an easy trip for visitors beyond the South.
"St. Augustine had a railroad and quality hotels back a long time ago. We had no such blessings. We didn't have a good hotel until 1910," said John Appleyard, 86, a Pensacola author and historian.
And even when tourists arrive, it isn't easy to see all the sites. The remnants of the Spanish Fort Barrancas are on Pensacola Naval Air Station and tourists must pass through base security gates to tour them. Because the base is home to the Navy's Blue Angels and the National Museum of Naval Aviation, it has become tourist friendly in recent decades.
Fort Pickens was built by the U.S. government between 1829 and 1834 on the tip of Santa Rosa Island and part of the Gulf Islands National Seashore. The fort was occupied by federal forces throughout the Civil War, despite threats from Southern forces. Pickens exchanged cannon fire with Confederate-held Fort Barrancas on the Pensacola mainland.
Modern visitors once could drive the 14-mile round trip out to Pickens, but hurricanes washed the road away in 2004. Since then, it has been accessible only by boat, on foot or on bike with long portions of pushing the bike along the sandy beach. Park officials plan to have the road reopened to cars for the summer tourist season.
Fort Barrancas is an easier visit at Pensacola Naval Air Station. It sits near the National Museum of Naval Aviation, which includes historic aircraft, a restaurant that was an officers club moved from the Philippines and an IMAX theater. The air station is itself a historic site — it was the Navy's first air station and has trained thousands of pilots since World War I.
"Slowly but surely the historical aspect of Pensacola is taking place," said Appleyard, who was one of the organizers of the city's 400th birthday celebration in 1959.
Emphasis on history
In 1992, archaeologists began salvaging parts of a Spanish galleon from de Luna's doomed fleet in Pensacola Bay. Artifacts from the shipwreck, the oldest ever found in Florida waters, are on display at the T.T. Wentworth Jr. Florida State Museum in downtown Pensacola.
Fifty years ago, Appleyard dreamed of creating a tourist village, like Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg, on Pensacola Beach. A small village was constructed for the 400th birthday, actors wore period costumes and Spanish artisans displayed crafts, but enthusiasm for the project faded after a few years and the village was abandoned.
Since then, the state has established the small Historic Pensacola Village, a collection of museums, restored buildings and archaeological sites in downtown Pensacola. The Wentworth sits atop the remains of another colonial fort where Andrew Jackson accepted title to Florida for the United States from Spain in 1821.
Appleyard hopes the 450th birthday will be an opportunity to develop a permanent national interest in Pensacola's history.
"There hasn't been an organized plan for getting people to make a historical tour of Pensacola before," said Appleyard, who has produced a series of television, print and radio spots that detail the area's history.
Among the 2009 special events are an April wine festival; a May commemoration of the 1781 Battle of Pensacola; a June visit by the four-masted topsail Spanish Royal Navy schooner Juan Sebastian de Elcano; the 60th annual Fiesta of Five Flags celebration in June; and events re-creating and commemorating de Luna's landing in August.
Most of the events will include parades, a much-loved tradition in Pensacola where Mardi Gras-like krewes form social clubs and have activities throughout the year. During the parades, krewes throw beads and Moon Pies from elaborate floats.
Historians say Pensacola celebrated a traditional Mardi Gras before the Great Depression. In the late 1940s, the largely Protestant city decided to break from nearby New Orleans and Mobile, Ala., and have its own Fiesta of Five Flags. Nowadays, the city holds Mardi Gras events in February and Five Flags events in the summer.
"For a small town, we have a whole lot of spirit. We love parades and we love to dress up for the parades — Spanish conquistadors, hippies, clowns, anything, people here just love to dress up and have a parade," said Laura Lee, 29, a volunteer on the committee organizing the birthday celebration.
Lee says that any time is a good time to pay the city a birthday visit, but those wanting to avoid the heat and crowds might consider visiting in spring or fall.
"Our big tourist season kicks off Memorial Day weekend, but come early. With our schedule, it's not just one event; we've got something really fun pretty much every weekend."