Step Back into History

Despite accessibility concerns, travelers with disabilities can get a lot out of a visit to
St. Augustine.

America’s earliest history is found in Florida. St. Augustine is North America’s oldest continuously inhabited European settlement. It’s also a big tourist draw, revered for not only its history but also its romantic charm. 

“There’s still plenty of stuff to do in St. Augustine,” says resident John Trifiletti, assistant director of the local Centers for Independent Living—the Living Resource Center of Northeast Florida. Trifiletti is also a board member for the Veterans Reintegration Center of Jacksonville.

About ten years ago, Trifiletti’s wife Diane and he were in a private-aircraft accident that left them with back injuries. He’s been a wheelchair user since; she’s ambulatory. After the accident, Trifiletti saw the historic city he’d lived in for a decade from a whole new perspective.

“It really opens up your eyes to accessibility,” he says. “A lot of things in St. Augustine are not accessible.”

Joseph Brehn says accessibility has improved at St. Augustine’s largest attraction, the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, since he started working there in the 1980s. Brehn is the living history program manager at the national monument. “We’ve gone about accessibility from a programmatic approach,” he explains.

In 2007, the City of St. Augustine settled an Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) suit by agreeing to spend $650,000 over seven years to fix various accessibility problems. Some of that money went into the city’s historic district, Old Town, which is beside the castillo.

Nevertheless, Jim Trago, Central Florida Paralyzed Veterans of America board member, says he’s been disappointed by visits to St. Augustine. He lives about 80 miles away.“The town in general has done a very poor job at accessibility,” Trago says. “We didn’t spend any time in town because we couldn’t get around.”

A Complex History

St. Augustine was a Spanish settlement, founded in 1565—an age of conquistadors, colonization, pirates, privateers, and out-and-out treasure looting. Don Juan Ponce de Leon spotted the North American continent on Easter in 1513. For centuries, folks figured he was the first European to see North America, but more recent research says he likely wasn’t. Either way, de Leon waved a hand, declared the land for Spain, and named it “La Florida,” or “Land of Flowers.”

Over the next 50 years, Spain launched six expeditions to settle the Florida Peninsula to protect shipping routes. None worked out. By 1564, the French moved onto Florida’s St. Johns River. This threatened Spain’s interests, so King Phillip II sent Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles to set up a military colony.  

On the Feast Day of St. Augustine, August 28, 1565, Menendez’s expedition reached the shores of northeast Florida. Records say 11 days later about 600 soldiers and settlers went ashore and hastily set up a village and named it St. Augustine. (Oh, 42 years later, about the life expectancy of the time, the English settled Jamestown, Va.)

In 1586, Sir Francis Drake led an attack on St. Augustine—the first of many battles there. Over the years, it became increasingly obvious to the Spanish they needed to stop building wooden forts and get some serious firepower in St. Augustine. Using native coquina (white rocks made up of marine shells and coral), in 1672 the Spanish started building Castillo de Marcos to protect the colony and Spanish shipping. It’s now the oldest masonry fort in the United States and is part of the National Park Service.

Throughout its complex history, the fort served the Spanish, British, Union, and Confederate militaries. The United States War Department retired it from military use in 1900. The Interior Department got the fort in 1933.

 Although attacked many times, Castillo de San Marcos, later named Fort Marion, never succumbed to assault. It changed hands through treaties and agreements. Some historians say in show of courage worthy of a Hollywood blockbuster, a lone Union soldier left to take care of the fort successfully squared off against a Confederate army. He agreed to surrender the fort only if the Rebs gave him a receipt. He got it.

Today, the castillo helps protect St. Augustine’s tourism industry: “Over 600,000 (visitors) a year, easy,” says Luis Gonzalez, site supervisor.

Positive Changes

Brehn explains the national monument used to be completely inaccessible to wheelchair users. “We’ve now got ramps going into all the casement rooms open to the public,” he says. “There were steps into a lot of the rooms. We’ve gone to ramps all the way around. There’s one or two areas that because of historic character, we can’t.”

Courtyard pathways have been greatly widened and smoothed since the 1980s. Unfortunately, the upper deck of Castillo de San Marcos is accessible only via a long, masonry staircase. Brehn says park staff have looked at a number of ways to allow wheelchair users to visit the popular area. So far, Brehn says, no method that seems reasonably safe has been presented.

Because many popular presentations, such as cannon firings, are usually done on the upper deck, actors portraying soldiers of various historic periods and other presenters have been trained to watch for guests with disabilities and move presentations to them. “Our folks know, if somebody wants to see something, grab it and bring it down and show it to them,” Brehn says.

The cannon firings are more difficult to move than other presentations, but a phone call ahead can make it happen. “We have a couple of field guns,” says Brehn. “If we know we have someone coming, we can move the whole cannon firing downstairs.” 

Additionally, an on-demand movie presents an early Spanish cannon-firing in an accessible theater at the castillo. Brehn says over the years some antique cannons—that were only on the upper deck—have been moved to accessible areas of the castillo. Static displays that are too high for wheelchair users are being replaced with shorter ones.

“We’re getting new exhibits throughout the fort,” Brehn explains. “We’re getting them lowered and angled better. We’re also getting Braille panels.”   

Many of the floors in the Castillo de San Marcos are heavily worn and very uneven. Brehn says they’re becoming smoothed over time.

At the Matanzas Inlet, about 15 miles south of the Castillo de San Marcos, is the Fort Matanzas National Monument. The Spanish built the small coquina fort there after the British launched an attack on St. Augustine by traveling up the Matanzas River in 1740. The fort is on an island that requires a ferry ride. Brehn says new ferries over the years have improved accessibility for people with mobility challenges. One now on order should get wheelchair users to the island.

“You should be able to wheel right in,” Brehn explains.

Problem Areas  

St. Augustine’s Old Town is a charming place of unusual shops and museums. However, it was built in an area prone to flooding. Because of that, many of its older buildings, some dating to the 1700s, have elevated doorways, ranging from about four to eight inches. Narrow streets and doorways, along with short building widths, make installing ramps seemingly impossible. Some of these shops have back entrances that are accessible. Sometimes those entrances are advertised, sometimes not. Shop owners and managers with unadvertised accessible entrances explain, in interviews, they simply never thought to let visitors know they’re there.

Newer buildings in Old Town often have ground-level entrances, since municipal drainage resolved flooding, and some of the older buildings in less crowded areas have ramps.

A big problem Trago encountered when visiting St. Augustine was parking. During peak seasons, this is an issue for all visitors to St. Augustine’s Old City. According to Trifiletti, drivers with disabilities don’t have to fight for inadequate on-street parking spots that are too small for van lifts, anyhow.

“There’s free parking for people with disabilities right at the start of the Old City,” he explains. That’s at a municipal parking garage. Several parking spots for lift-equipped vans are at the castillo.

Trifiletti explains many theme parks and museums around St. Augustine are completely or mostly accessible, including the Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum and Alligator Farm Zoological Park. He notes accessible boardwalks offer romantic solitude along much of the beachfront around St. Augustine, too.

Trago warns he’s encountered sand accumulated at a boardwalk entrance that was too deep for a wheelchair user to cross.

Weather Watch

St. Augustine is prone to hurricane strikes. The North Atlantic hurricane season is June 1 to November 30, with a peak between August and October. Summer temperatures around June to September stay in the high 90s, or higher, with stifling humidity. Evening summer temperatures often remain high, because of the humidity.

“It’s Florida,” remarks Trifiletti. “It’s never very cold. The best times to go are spring and fall. We have a very short winter and a very long summer.”

The week between Christmas and New Year’s is St. Augustine’s busiest, according to Brehn. He says visits to the Castillo de San Marcos increase about 50% over average that week.

Getting Around

Public transportation around St. Augustine is poor, warns Trifiletti. At least two rental agencies with accessible vans serve the area.

Michael Goldberg, Florida Van Rentals manager, says his company meets customers at Orlando International Airport and at Amtrak stations throughout Central Florida. (Orlando International Airport is about 100 miles from St. Augustine.) The vehicles can be driven anywhere in Florida—but not out of the state. Florida Van Rentals also rents some durable medical equipment (800-308-2503).

Tammy Smith, Wheelers Van Rentals president, says her company has an office in Jacksonville, about 40 miles from St. Augustine. She explains they will meet customers at Jacksonville International Airport or Jacksonville Amtrak station. “We deliver the vans wherever they want them,” she says.

Wheelers doesn’t offer durable medical equipment at its Jacksonville office. The number is 800-456-1371.

Several national chains have hotels and motels in or near St. Augustine. Check online or call your travel agent.

Trifiletti says his hometown can be a great vacation spot for visitors with disabilities but adds that advance Internet research and calling ahead are the best ways to avoid accessibility problems hampering enjoyment. “It’s like you stepped into the early 1900s,” he remarks.

That has its up- and downsides.   


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