De Leon probably wasn't the first European to set foot in Florida, and there is even debate on where he landed exactly: Melbourne Beach, St. Augustine or South Ponte Vedra Beach. But all of these suggested spots are based on fairly tenuous documentation.
"It's unlikely we will ever know the precise landing spot," said Francis, Hough Family Chair of Florida Studies at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg, Fla. "There is no archaeological footprint. No logbook. And even if found, there's no guarantee we would even know from that."
The commemoration, he said, is not about pinpointing the Spanish legacy but about rediscovering "and maybe even discover for the first time Florida's colonial history."
Francis also wants to set the record straight about the search for eternal youth: There is no mention of the Fountain of Youth in de Leon's contracts with Spanish crowns or in his own writings, Francis said.
"Over time that story became more embellished," Francis said. "What started as a myth ended up in the writings of later historians and chroniclers as history."
But the legend lives on in Florida's 700 natural springs and with spas, health resorts and yoga retreats.
Kicking off the 2013 celebration of European discovery was "La Gran Naranja" or the "Big Orange" drop — a 35-foot LED neon orange LCD descending from the side of a downtown Miami hotel on New Year's Eve. The word naranja comes from the sweet Valencia orange the Spanish introduced to America, later becoming Florida's official state fruit.
Throughout the year, 150 events across the state will mark the anniversary: Drive the Spanish Heritage Trail. Dive on historic shipwrecks. Tour a Spanish basilica and mission village. Visit orange groves and cattle ranches. Taste the flavors of Florida. Other events will include plenty of festivals with re-enactments and other things to do in addition to visiting the beaches and theme parks the state is famous for.