By Dan Szematowicz, CNN
Follow on Twitter: @CNNDan
Editor's Note: CNN’s Dan Szematowicz grew up in Florida and has a taste for the stranger news in life. Listen to the full essay in our player above, and join the conversation in our comments section below.
(CNN) – Five hundred years ago this week, Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon – a man I once impersonated for corporate parties in St. Augustine (don’t ask) – landed on a pristine beach somewhere on the east coast of the Florida Peninsula.
On that day in 1513, he landed in a simpler Florida. The only residents were Native Americans, and historians have not yet found conclusive evidence that they had "$20 Spring Break Sink Or Swim" drink specials.
Legend tells that de Leon was on a quest to find the Fountain of Youth. History suggests he was hunting for undiscovered islands to claim.
Either way, de Leon set in motion a chain of events that culminated in Sunshine State headlines like these:
Over the last couple of decades, starting in the 1980's and, apparently, increased use of cocaine, Florida natives have made “weird” an art form.
For every oddball news item that you can send me about any other state, I bet I can send you three from Florida, all at least five times as strange.
The easiest way to comprehend this "Floridaness" is to think of the state as one big Mos Eisley Cantina, that bar in the very first Star Wars where Luke and Obi-Wan meet Han Solo and Chewbacca for the first time.
At Mos Eisley, countless species of aliens gathered to drink, make shady deals, listen to electronic music and fight. Droids were not welcome there.
Go to almost any public gathering place in Miami, Tampa or Orlando on any night and you’ll see people doing all of the above, often at the same time.
That’s the view of Florida that the rest of the country sees more often than not. It’s an entertaining view, but it’s not an accurate one.
The key to all this is Florida's amazingly awesome diversity. It boasts an almost infinite array of cultures, nationalities, transplants and age groups.
Painting with a broad brush, you’ve got your diverse Latino and international community in the Miami area, retirement communities on both coasts, snowbirds from up north and traditional Southern rural communities in the center, north and Panhandle.
There’s something about this mix that gives Florida that extra sizzle. Maybe it’s the humidity. Maybe it’s the stepping outside and having nature immediately try to eat you. Maybe it's the sun. Whatever it is, there's something about Florida that makes a person say, "Act my age? Hell no!"
And you know what? In most cases that's a pretty awesome way to think. As long as it's not overdone.
But let's also recognize that the vast majority of Floridians have normal, non-headline-grabbing lives just like the rest of America.
As a Floridian, you become used to the otherworldliness that happens just down the road. You watch the news, see the crazies and sigh.
With all that weirdness, it’s easy to forget about many of the things that still bring hundreds of thousands of new folks to the state every year: the beaches, the tropical weather and the never-get-old mentality.
No, Ponce de Leon didn’t discover the Fountain of Youth in Florida. He did help create it though.