Pausing at the threshold between the 17th and 18th century areas of St. Augustine's Colonial Quarter, tour guide Scott Abrams issues a warning: "We're jumping 100 years into the past. Your ears might pop."
Just in time for the yearlong 500th anniversary celebration of Juan Ponce de León's landing in 1513 — and the statewide fanfare accompanying it — the Colonial Quarter opened in March after a $3 million renovation and expansion. The 2-acre living history attraction occupies the St. George Street location once known as the Colonial Spanish Quarter, which closed last year. While its predecessor focused on colonial life circa 1740, the revamped version reflects four historical periods, taking visitors from the Age of Discovery to the city's days as a fortified Spanish town, a British colony and a bustling military garrison.
All of that history is relayed with theatrical flair by tour guides like Abrams — stage name Grimm — who deliver a carefully calibrated blend of entertainment and education. Sporting khaki shirts and fedoras reminiscent of Indiana Jones, the guides lead visitors through a mix of historic buildings and new construction, including a 35-foot watchtower, a Spanish soldier's home and a blacksmith shop. While the interpretation favors the dramatic, each part of the spiel has been vetted for accuracy by experts at the University of Florida, which manages the state-owned property. (Visitors who prefer self-guided tours can peruse 48 interpretive panels, which received similar scholarly scrutiny.)
Tours begin in the Town Plaza, part of the area representing St. Augustine's days as an 18th century Spanish garrison town. Visitors can step into the Gallegos house, a reconstruction based on the foundations of a soldier's home built here in 1720. Inside, an eerily convincing animatronic woman sways and speaks as she stirs the family's meal. The British colonial section features the 1764 DeMesa House, where St. Augustine's multi-national history is embodied in the patchwork of features typical of the city's historic buildings, with additions tacked on by each regime.
Throughout the museum, hands-on activities keep kids engaged, whether they're hammering designs into souvenir bracelets in the leather shop or joining a militia drill with replica muskets in the 17th century area, where the watchtower offers sweeping views of the Castillo de San Marcos.
In the 16th century First City, where kids can sift through a mock archaeology dig, an ongoing shipbuilding project offers a front-row seat to the construction of a 55-foot caravel. The project is expected to take up to 10 years to complete.
Colonial Crew Revue, a live-action musical comedy show inspired by the city's history, debuted this month under the Colonial Oak, a towering beauty in the Town Plaza that predates Florida's statehood. Based loosely on local history, the family-friendly show is embellished with magic, sword-fighting and broad humor. Dining options in the Colonial Quarter include a new British pub, the Bull and Crown, with streetside dining along the pedestrians-only St. George, as well as the Taberna del Caballo. The Taberna, an expanded version of the original attraction's candlelit tavern, serves Spanish-inspired dishes such as spiced clams and arroz con pollo in a cozy courtyard. And while it's true that encountering three centuries of history in 2 acres might feel a bit bewildering, it's nothing the Taberna's house-made sangria can't fix.
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Alisson Clark is a freelance writer in Gainesville.