St. Augustine Pirate Museum: 'Slice of Disney... with Authenticity'
For history buffs, there is a circa 1710 blunderbuss. For popular culture fans, there's Jack Sparrow's sword.
At the Pirate Museum in downtown St. Augustine, you can stand on the deck of a replicated pirate ship, light a reproduction of a cannon and feel the simulated blast reverberate beneath your feet.
Those are props, and they give you a sense of the pirate life.
But feet away, attached to the railing of the same ship, you'll find a 1710 blunderbuss that was once attached to a ship's gunwales and used in a real battle. The bronze blunderbuss, with a 24-inch barrel, was capable of killing six to eight people with one shot.
You can handle it. Swivel it on its perch. Fiddle with the trigger. And, yes, it's real.
"That's a very expensive artifact. But you can touch it," says Pat Croce, the former owner of the NBA's Philadelphia 76ers who opened his St. Augustine Pirate and Treasure Museum in 2010. "I need you to be able to touch and smell and hear and feel things. If I could, I'd let everyone touch everything."
The Pirate Museum is one of the newest attractions in the oldest continuously occupied European-settled city in what is now the United States. But it fits the community's style of mixing heritage and history with a vibrant cultural scene.
Tours of the pirate museum are generally self-guided, but the museum is also a popular school field trip destination and plays host to birthday parties, scout troops and larger groups.
St. Augustine had a long history with pirates even before Croce relocated his museum from its original location in Key West. One room of the museum – dubbed Rogues Tavern – pays homage to the pirates and privateers that raided St. Augustine or nearby coastal areas, such as Amelia Island. Among the most famous: Sir Francis Drake burned the city to the ground in 1586, and Captain Robert Searles ransacked the town in 1668 and raided the Royal Treasury.
New in 2013, Rogues Tavern features the Drake Expedition exhibit with a rare burnt wooden remnant from one of Drake’s two 16th century ships that Croce is believed to have discovered during an October 2011 expedition to Panama. It also includes an exact model of the shipwreck site, a replica of the Elizabeth - Drake’s imposing 194-ton, 12-cannon galleon - and a short, high-energy video chronicling Croce’s Panamanian adventure to find Drake’s ships and coffin.
The joy of The Pirate Museum is found in its sensory appeal.
Visitors can feel cobblestones beneath their feet and hear Caribbean birds squawking overhead in the simulated city of Port Royal, a popular pirate destination. They can smell the scent of tobacco and butter rum on the ship's cargo deck. Below Deck, Croce hired Disney Imagineers to recreate the experience of Blackbeard's final battle.
Visitors can even touch an actual treasure chest, displayed in a specially designed case that exposes a portion of the prize to curious hands. But this chest is not the preeminent one in Croce's collection.
Also on display, but no touching, is the world's only treasure chest with authenticated provenance to a pirate, Captain Thomas Tew. The chest is made of iron, its exterior painted with figures that don't look fierce at all: flowers, birds and angels. The chest also features a fake keyhole on its front panel. The real lock is hidden on the top.
"I sat there with 100 other people bidding on that treasure chest," says Croce, who captured his prize at a Christie's auction. "There was no way I was leaving without that treasure chest."
Croce paid $63,450, according to Christie's. The museum would say only that Captain Tew's chest is insured for $1 million.
The museum also includes a genuine Jolly Roger flag, a "Wanted" poster for the capture of pirate Captain Henry Every and the ship log from Captain Kidd's final journey.
A sign separates the historical portion of the museum from the fictional in Hollywood Pirates, where Croce has displayed Errol Flynn's jacket from Captain Blood and Captain Jack Sparrow's sword from Pirates of the Caribbean.
Croce saw Captain Blood as a kid, and the film ignited his love of pirate culture. Today, he has an apartment above the museum and visits St. Augustine about once a month. "I never lose the 'wow' experience," he says. "I love standing on board the ship, even when the museum is closed. It's my slice of Disney, but with authenticity."
If You Go
St. Augustine Pirate & Treasure Museum
12 S. Castillo Drive
Directions: Take Interstate 95 to State Road 16 East to U.S. Highway 1. Turn south on U.S. 1. After about a mile, turn left on W Castillo Drive and then right onto S Castillo Drive. The Pirate Museum is on the right. Admission is $12.99 for adults and $6.99 for children 5 to 12. Children under age 4 enter free. Discounts are offered to seniors, military and AAA members. St. Augustine is located in northeast Florida about 40 minutes south of Jacksonville off I-95.
Amy Wimmer Schwarb has spent her professional career vacillating between the coasts of Florida and her home state of Indiana, spending several years as a staff writer and editor at the St. Petersburg Times and several more as a magazine editor in Indianapolis. But in the end, Florida won her heart: She is now a full-time freelancer based in St. Augustine.