Back in the Stone Age, before that certain big-eared, grinning mouse took residence in Orlando, the hot ticket in Central Florida was Weeki Wachee Springs.
Vacationers beckoned by flags and signs on U.S. Highway 19 in Hernando County (about 40 miles north of Tampa) would stop to catch a glimpse of the crystal-clear springs for which the park is famous, although the main attraction here is, and always has been, the mermaids. Real, live mermaids.
In 1947, Newton Perry unveiled his new, underwater mermaid show. A former Navy frogman and stunt double for Tarzan movies, Perry had a deep appreciation for the natural springs of Florida.
The mermaid show was his most famous venture, borne from his experience working with air compressors during World War II. If it worked for Navy divers, Perry figured, why not young women in tails?
Of course, back then, Perry couldn’t have imagined how popular his mermaid show would become. In the beginning, the underwater theater sat 16 spectators. The mermaids swam and frolicked with the fish while breathing through air tubes.
In 1959, ABC bought Weeki Wachee Springs, which is when most of the park’s expansion and renovation took place. They created Buccaneer Bay, an adjacent water park, and business was booming. The underwater theater grew to seat 400, and the mermaids gained national attention.
These days, the mermaids perform half-hour shows such as “The Little Mermaid.”
A surprising number of adults attend without children, although the loudest voices are the young ones excited to see the main mermaid, Ariel. They gasp as the curtain is raised on the 80-foot expanse of glass paneling that serves as the lens to an underwater world.
The aqua glow of the water brightens the entire theater as three mermaids swim up from below. They glide gracefully passed fish and turtles, their hair and glittery fins looking almost iridescent. They grip their air hoses and smile, lip-synching to music reminiscent of department-store Muzak piped into the theater.
Dropping the air hoses, the mermaids grab each others’ ankles, forming a circle. Children go wild and adults clap while fish swim inches away from the mermaids.
“The fish – they’re called brimfish – are trained to the music, if you can believe it,” said Matt Hay, a merman. “They don’t usually come out, but when the music comes on, they know they’re going to get fed.”
Hay, who plays the prince in “The Little Mermaid,” said the mermaids don’t swim deeper than 25 feet while performing. The spring, however, stretches down hundreds of feet, accessible only to divers.
“We’re all scuba certified, but I wouldn’t want to go much deeper than we do,” Hay said. “We all have problems with sinus pressure. Otherwise, it’s great.”
Hay said the number of visitors to the park has dropped significantly since September, but usually there is a crowd gathered on a landing outside the Mermaid Museum.
Closer inspection reveals a mermaid propped prettily on a rock, waiting for tourists to take advantage of the photo opportunity. Surprisingly, the children surrounding her seem shy, hesitantly reaching out to touch her glittering tail. With coaxing from parents, the kids cautiously crawl on the rock, keeping some distance from the mermaid. She leans in and puts her arm around one of the little boys as he smiles for the camera.
The mermaid magic is still there.
The Mermaid Museum is a gray, clapboard snack shop with three walls devoted to mermaid memorabilia. Old magazine covers from Weeki Wachee’s glory days a few decades ago are plastered from ceiling to floor. There are pictures of visiting dignitaries such as Elvis Presley, Esther Williams and James Darren. Yellowed snapshots from the ’60s show the mermaids having an underwater cookout – complete with a grill.
If mermaids aren’t the thing, take heart; there is more to see at Weeki Wachee.
Newton Perry envisioned a nature-inspired attraction, and that’s what the park remains today.
Away from the underwater theater is the aptly-named Tranquility Trail.
Here, manicured plants and trees are gone. Ferns and shrubs spring free along the footpath, and the trees make a shady green canopy for taking a stroll or just sitting on a bench and observing the wildlife. There are plenty of birds, fish, turtles and otters to see. Push aside a curtain of foliage and maybe there will be a white egret balancing on one foot.
The river cruise offers the best way to get a peek at the park’s wildlife.
The spring is so clear that visitors can see to the bottom, which makes it easy to observe creatures swimming below. Halfway through the river cruise, the boat swings past a rotting wood structure which used to house a family of monkeys. The monkeys are gone, but the structure remains. The Weeki Wachee River empties into the Gulf of Mexico only a few miles away. It wouldn’t be surprising if the abundance of wildlife made the mermaids skittish to jump into a virtual zoo when performing underwater.
“Mostly, the only animals that venture by the theater are turtles and otters,” Hay said. “But, yes, sometimes gators do get into that area and we stop the show. We also stop if a manatee comes over.”
But Hay said that doesn’t happen often. The sea cows just aren’t as plentiful as they were back in Newton Perry’s day.
- Contact Suzanne Soliman at email@example.com