De Soto welcomes kids with activities

BRADENTON, Fla. — Grab your compass and get ready for an adventure because that is what kids find when they enter the Visitor Center at De Soto National Memorial.

“Our award winning Junior Ranger Program prompts kids to get an education and not even realize they are doing so,” said Ranger Dan Stephens. “They have to complete six activities which include things like dressing up in a conquistadors armor, creating their own family flag and hiking the nature trails in the memorial.”

After completing the activities in the book, children receive a free Junior Ranger Badge and official Junior Ranger hats are available for sale in the bookstore.

Click on the video at the right to view an audio slideshow about activities at De Soto National Memorial prepared by author Chelsea Pillsbury.

If visiting during peak tourist season between December and April, children get the opportunity to witness a living history camp where blacksmiths, soldiers and Native Americans talk about their lives in the 16th century.

“If there are a lot of kids in the audience we tend to try to get them involved in the presentation,” explained Ranger Lauren Duncan.

“One kid might get blacksmithing props, another cobblers tools and another a conquistador’s hat,” chimed in Stephens.

Creating hands on, interactive enrichment programs are what the rangers at De Soto National Memorial try to focus upon.

Ranger Ben Sims, who has worked at the park for four years, is one of the primary youth coordinators at the park.

Every holiday season De Soto park rangers line the nature trails with these luminaries and visitors can enjoy walking the trails at night while listening to musicians such as Native American flute player Juan R. Leon (Photos courtesy of De Soto National Memorial). DNMactivities1

“I lead a lot of the kayak tours and being an interpretation ranger that means I try to paint a picture for the visitors of what was here when De Soto landed,” said Sims.

During the summer months, kayak tours allow visitors to learn directly from rangers like Sims about De Soto’s landing and about what that landing meant for the native peoples there and for the surrounding environment.

Also during the summer, the park runs a free six-week summer program. Locals and visiting families can drop off their kids one day a week during this time and know that their children are not only having a blast, but are learning something new.

“Running the camps is a lot of fun. A lot of times we bring in our high school student volunteers and it is a great way for them to really experience what being a ranger is all about,” said Ranger Abraham Sanchez.

DNMactivities2 Soldiers from various wars come to De Soto each year for the Five Centuries Event to demonstrate use of the weapons they used and talk about what their “life” was like.

While the park has many programs and activities that last for months at a time, some of their most well attended events are the ones that only last for one day.

“Every couple of months we have some kind of event at the park that draws in families and children,” said Ranger Stephens.

In October, the park presents Desoween, each year with a new theme. This past year’s theme was the Trail of Haunted Legends and included a family friendly spooky trail walk.

During the holidays the park lights luminaries along its pathways and welcomes local musicians onto its grounds for a winter festival.

“Especially during the holidays we get a lot of out of town visitors to the park so it is always nice to offer them an experience that encourages them to come back to the park the next year,” said Ranger Sims.

These events, and others, are all catered towards families and especially towards engaging children in the park and what it has to offer.

DNMactivities3 The De Soto National Memorial park rangers pose in their Desoween costumes. Dressed as pirates, confederates, clowns and more, each one represented something from the areas past.

“This place is a gem. We’ll always bring the kids here for a picnic while we’re down visiting their grandparents and always end up going through the museum or watching some sort of presentation that the kids … and we … love,” said Lila McTern, who was visiting the park from White Lake, Mich.

The park not only draws in tourists for its on-going activities,, but once a year at the park’s Five Centuries of Florida History event, historical re-enactors from all around Florida come to interact with the visitors at the De Soto National Memorial.

This event, which takes place in March each year, features re-enactors, presentations and memorabilia spanning five centuries.

“We have Civil War re-enactors, World War I re-enactors, World War II re-enactors, Native Americans, pirates, Spanish horsemen re-enactors and more,” said Stephens. “It is probably my favorite event of the year because we get to teach our visitors so much in that one day — and everyone is having a great time!”

At the upcoming Five Centuries event, children will even have a chance to participate in a hands-on archeology project brought to the park by the Southeastern Archaeological Conference.

Less than a month later, comes the portrayal of Hernando De Soto’s infamous landing. Rangers provide talks and demonstrations about De Soto’s expedition and its lasting impact on the Southeast all day after the re-enactors come ashore.

Last year, high school volunteers at De Soto got their hands dirty as they participated in an archeology project day sponsored by the Southeastern Archeological Conference. This year it will be opened to all visitors at the Five Centuries Event as well. DNMactivities4

“This is probably our most known of event because of the popularity of the De Soto parade shortly after and the fact that its been done for decades,” said Ranger Duncan.

Children can see “real live” conquistadors and native peoples interact the way they might have centuries ago and both locals and visitors to the area get to learn a little history while enjoying a sunny day on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Whether they are walking dogs, enjoying a picnic, coming to an event or witnessing a demonstration, visitors to the park are guaranteed to enjoy beautiful scenery, white sandy beaches and a clear view of the Manatee River flowing into Tampa Bay.

At De Soto National Memorial, children will be exposed to history without even realizing it and parents might even learn a little something, also.


If You Go

  • Admission:  Free.
  • Hours:  Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed only on New Year’s Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. The park may also be closed if there is a hurricane threat.
  • Camp Uzita:  This living history camp is open only from December through April. The camp concludes with the De Soto landing event.
  • Nature Trail: Forty-five minute Trail Walks are offered. Inquire at the Visitor Center or call ahead to make sure of tour availability.
  • Picnic Area: First-come, first-serve. Grills and alcohol are not allowed within the park.
  • Beaches: There are no beach access restrictions. However, no lifeguards are present.
  • Boating: Boaters are allowed to anchor in The Cove. Canoes and kayaks may also be launched from this site.
  • Dogs:  Must be on a leash.
  • Kayak Tours: Usually offered every day during the summer months. Call ahead to check availability.
  • For Kids: Check in at the Visitor Center to get a Junior Ranger Activity book.
  • Address: 8300 De Soto Memorial Hwy., Bradenton, Fla. 34209
  • Contact: 941-792-0458
  • Website:


Special Events

  • Winter Luminary Walk: Dec. 15; 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.
  • Chickasaw Nation Gathering: March 9, all day.
  • Five Centuries of Florida History: March 30, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • De Soto Landing: April 20, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

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