DeSoto National Memorial Bradenton, Fla. Visited: December 27, 2004 NPS Site Visited: 131 of 353 NPS Website
WHAT IS IT? The memorial honors the life of Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto as well as his tortuous four-year expedition through the present-day southern United States.
BEAUTY (7/10) The De Soto N MEM is located amid an upscale residential area along the Gulf Coast of Florida. It is beautiful here. The memorial borders both Tampa Bay to the north and the Manatee River to the east. The small park offers walks along the beach as well as a mile-long boardwalk trail through a mangrove swamp canopied by gumbo-limbo trees and black, red and white mangroves. Even though there is no evidence that De Soto ever landed or spent any time here, the setting is a nice place for his memorial.
HISTORIC SIGNIFICANCE (5/10) The memorial’s physical site holds dubious historic significance, as does De Soto’s quixotic 4,000-mile trek through the south looking for gold. In De Soto’s mad journey, he established no colonies, built no lasting roads or trade routes, gathered little information and found zero treasure (gold or otherwise). He was fabulously unsuccessful.
The Site realizes De Soto’s inadequacies and focuses its teachings on Spanish New World exploration as a whole. Costumed Rangers give hourly talks, fire crossbows and matchlock muskets, cook period food and demonstrate the day-to-day life of the conquistadors while exhibits show the lasting effects of various Spanish explorers.
CROWDS (3/10) We are not the only ones who decided to winter in Florida. When we arrived at the Site, all paved parking spots were taken. While we probably should have just parked in the grass spots next to their paved brethren, Michael drove a half mile back to the Site entrance and wedged the Altima between the narrow road and a drainage canal.
When we entered the Visitor Center it looked empty, until we entered the theater to watch the intro film. 38 of the approximately 40 seats were full. We scurried to the front row, far left corner and craned our necks around an unused television set for the next 21 minutes.
After the film, Gab decided to try on the suit of armor that the Site provides for hands-on enjoyment. After struggling to put on the 50-pound chain mail vest, a ten-year-old kid approached and accosted Gab, “you can’t wear that, you’re going to get in trouble. I’m telling someone.” Never shy about verbal battles with preteens, Gab quickly retorted, “It says right there that you are supposed to wear it. Go tell whoever you want.” The kid skulked away disappointed that Gab was correct.
EASE OF USE/ACCESS (3/5) The Site is not an easy Interstate detour despite its location amidst a large population center. Regardless of where you exit Interstate 75, traveling to De Soto N MEM requires driving at least 10 miles through heavily trafficked commercial roads. The Site is about five miles west from downtown Bradenton. Take Florida Route 64 (a/k/a Manatee Ave) and be careful, it switches from a one-way street to two-way traffic sometime before the turn to the Site. At 75th Street W, turn north. Signs will wind you through the residential neighborhood and to the memorial.
Numerous parks and other sites in the Tampa Bay area carry the De Soto name. Fort De Soto is a state park that lies directly across the Bay south of St. Pete Beach. Know where you want to go and remember that the National Park Site is in Bradenton.
CONCESSIONS/BOOKSTORE (3/5) Small stuffed manatees and sea turtles and plastic pointed conquistador hats rest on the shelves along with a few definitive tomes on Spanish exploration in the New World. Books on the most well-known, including Cabeza de Vaca, Ponce de Leon and of course Hernando de Soto make up the bulk of the selection.
COSTS (4/5) The Site is free.
RANGER/GUIDE TO TOURIST RATIO (4/5) Even with the large crowds, there were plenty of Rangers. Three costumed interpreters held court at the Replica Spanish Camp while three Rangers rotated inside the tiny Visitor Center.
TOURS/CLASSES (8/10) You cannot argue with the quantity. From December through April, costumed Rangers give a talk an hour about three separate topics and chronologies: 1) The Beginning (1539-1540); 2) the Journey (1539-1543) and; 3) The Legacy 1543 on. Gab enjoyed the Legacy talk, which recapped dates and events from the Spanish Inquisition to Francisco Pizzaro to De Soto. Helpful, but not exactly a Legacy of Spanish Exploration talk. Michael was incredulous that there was little mention of the importation of cows, pigs, horse and other hoofed animals to the New World, perhaps the most lasting Spanish effect on the land.
In between the talks, the Rangers demonstrate anything from blacksmithing to cooking. We saw a child ask how bullets were made. The Rangers response was to physically make a bullet. Tables of armor beckon the visitor to try them on while the Rangers explain what each part was used for. We saw a marked-up bulls eye painted onto a tree stump but did not have a chance to see spears being thrown or crossbows fired. The Site does a great job at making learning fun and interactive.
Both the film and the Visitor Center exhibits are new and very good. We especially liked the cardboard cutouts that line the boardwalk trail through the mangroves.
FUN (6/10) Once again, a quick morning visit turns into an all day event. We never had to look far to find something to do. If only the Visitor Center were a little larger to better disperse the crowd.
WOULD WE RECOMMEND? (6/10) We hadn’t imagined the DeSoto National Memorial to rank among popular Florida destinations, but it was not lacking in visitors. It seemed like everyone here had just arrived for their winter stay in one of the warmest states, or was out for some fresh air after a week of holiday visits with friends and/or family. For us, both apply. It was not the usual historical site crowd, but nothing in Florida feels all that usual.
We got the impression that folks here were supplementing their time at the beach, condos and shops with an easy educational outing. Any why not? The setting is pleasant, the information easy to digest, and the armor IS for trying on.
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