Quinceanera Checklist and Florida Destinations for the Perfect Party

    By Amy Wimmer Schwarb

    Central elements for this rite of passage for Hispanic girls have been the food, the guest list and a perfect gown. Now add location.

    St. Augustine – Lauren Avalos remembers the moment she began planning her quinceanera: She was in kindergarten, attending the 15th birthday celebration of an older cousin. The glamour of the event was mesmerizing, with its fancy food, extensive guest list and, best of all, a gorgeous dress for the guest of honor.

    "I was blown away. It's something that every Hispanic girl dreams about," recalls Avalos, now a sophomore at St. Augustine High School. "For my family, it was about me growing up and becoming a young woman and accepting responsibilities that come with being an adult."

    Finally, just months ago, her turn. Her family rented party space, and purchased the special dress. And Avalos posed for special portraits featuring the historic Spanish heritage of downtown St. Augustine: the Castillo de San Marcos, for instance, and the waterfront, overlooking Matanzas Bay.

    The quinceanera and St. Augustine, with their shared Spanish heritage and respect for beauty and a good party, seem to be a perfect marriage. And now the city is working to make St. Augustine a destination for 15-year-old girls looking for a perfect setting.

    The city hopes to draw not just girls such as Avalos, who makes St. Augustine her home year round, but also celebrators who host a "destination quinceanera" in town, much as brides host destination weddings.

    "We're suggesting that you don't have to have this in your own backyard; have it in a destination," Evelyn Vazquez, sales director for the St. Augustine Visitors and Convention Bureau, said. "And St. Augustine's heritage makes it the perfect place."

    Vazquez said she envisioned tapping into the quinceanera market to take advantage of St. Augustine's backdrop: the Spanish Renaissance and Moorish Revival architecture has not only flair but also historic authenticity. The area's bayfront, beaches and charming vistas add to that ambiance, Vazquez said.

    In Latin American cultures, the 15th birthday, or quinceanera, is celebrated as a rite of passage into womanhood. Traditions vary from country to country, but the parties are often accompanied by extravagant ball gowns, photo sessions and lavish parties.

    If the party sounds comparable to a wedding, in many ways, it is: In fact, in Once Upon a Quinceanera: Coming of Age in the U.S.A., published in 2007, author Julia Alvarez reports that some Catholic parishes perform more quinceanera blessings than weddings each year.

    The U.S. population boom among Hispanics – their numbers grew by nearly 50 percent between 2000 and 2010 – has helped fuel the growth in the quinceanera market. Already, destinations such as Disney World and Las Vegas offer quince packages.

    Now that St. Augustine is trying to add itself to that list of destinations, it has also offered training to wedding vendors seeking to understand how to accommodate this new market.

    "I think it's a huge opportunity," said Anne Urban, president of Destination Planning Corporation in Jacksonville. "The quinceaneras are elaborate – many people spend more for their 15-year-old daughter's quinceaneras than they do for their wedding."

    St. Augustine photographer Jackie Hird has traveled to Puerto Rico to attend a quinceanera expo there and is excited about the opportunities to bring more of the parties to St. Augustine.

    "People were there to have a good time, to celebrate the girl having the 15th birthday," Hird said. "I love going to events that are happy and upbeat. A wedding is more high-stress; this is more of a fun celebration for the girl."

    Already, the idea has met with some success. The city hosted a wedding and quinceanera expo this fall, introducing quinces to the city and its wedding vendors. At a workshop offered in advance of the expo, vendors were schooled in the traditions and needs of quinces.

    Perhaps thanks to the marketing effort, perhaps by chance, St. Augustine's four-star Casa Monica Hotel has booked two quinceaneras for the next few months. The hotel has even created its own tagline for marketing its ability to accommodate the parties: "Becoming a Young Lady in the Nation's Oldest City."

    "These events are like a wedding without the groom," said Linda Henry, director of sales and catering at the hotel. "There's a lot of tradition and heritage that goes with the event."

    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.