It’s high noon on a Wednesday, and I stand virtually alone in what was once (pre-Disney) a premier Florida tourist attraction, Weeki Wachee Springs. As in, the place where mermaids perform for you in a natural freshwater spring turned underwater theater. By my unofficial count – made even less official by the beer I promptly consumed upon entry – there were more employees than patrons. Yes, it was after Labor Day, when the attraction’s companion water park, Buccaneer Bay, opens only on weekends. Still, at most, I counted a couple dozen fellow mermaid-seekers, and most of them were old. Needless to say, Weeki Wachee isn’t much for crowd watching, but then again it cost me only $13.95 to get in – a pittance, by Orlando standards.
Fortunately, I’m not here for the crowd. I’m here to explore a storied attraction that is a few decades past its prime but eager to reassert itself in a denser market. The park opened in 1947, at the intersection of what were then the dirt roads of U.S. Highway 19 and State Road 50 in Spring Hill (about a half-hour drive north of Tampa) and atop the deepest freshwater spring in the entire United States, which is also one of the purest springs in the state. Park creator Newton Perry had a simple vision: women dressed up as mermaids performing shows in said spring. The mermaids breathe underwater via oxygen hoses that they also use to control their depth – taking a deep breath floats them up, exhaling has the opposite effect. It was, at the time, quite a revolutionary concept.
“Newt scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time,” the park’s website recounts.
In 1959, ABC purchased the park and advertised it heavily. The television network also added a 500-seat underwater theater so onlookers could watch the mermaids in comfort. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Weeki Wachee was one of the country’s foremost tourism stops. In 1982, Buccaneer Bay opened. In the decades that followed, though, the park fell on hard times and suffered neglect.
Technically, the land on which the park sits is owned by the Southwest Florida Water Management District, or Swiftmud, which in 1999 entered into a long-term lease with the park’s then owners, Weeki Wachee Springs LLC. But Swiftmud wasn’t happy with the park’s dilapidated condition and demanded almost $1 million in repairs, which the company was unwilling to make. So, in an effort to save Weeki Wachee Springs for future generations, the city of Weeki Wachee – incorporated in 1966, population nine (seriously) – took over the lease in 2003 and launched the “Save Our Tails” campaign, which you can assist by purchasing a bottle of Save Our Tails water at the park.
So how’s this “war on neglect” going? A journey on the battery-powered Wilderness River Cruise found the ship doddering along a few hundred yards of the naturally shallowed by drought waters that are crystal clear to the bottom. We saw a deer and some mullet, while the guide told us what we could have seen in the past – manatees coming out in winter; the wild monkeys now removed to a primate habitat; a 9-foot alligator that once swam downstream into the spring itself during a mermaid show. You get the sense that you missed the party.
The reality, however, is that I’m here for the mermaids. I caught two mermaid performances, both of which were schlocky as all hell. The first was called “Fish Tails,” wherein after a 10-minute video on the history of Weeki Wachee, mermaids dance and lip-sync to songs blasted over the PA, the most annoying of which was Lee Greenwood’s hokey “God Bless the U.S.A. (Proud to Be an American).” Round two came an hour later, a rendition of – wait for it – “The Little Mermaid.” The same mermaids sang and danced their way through the old classic to the utter amusement of the handful of children in the audience and the polite applause of the rest of us.
Indeed, Weeki Wachee no longer passes for cutting-edge entertainment, and I find it hard to believe that these mermaid shows will survive the ADHD generation. Still, there is a subtle charm to the notion that a dinosaur like this exists, a place where you can relax amid nature, have a beer or three, and simply watch mermaids – and maybe a deer. Attendance issues aside, Weeki Wachee is worth the expedition for environmentalists and lovers of semi-ironic-yet-unaware-of-its-irony Florida kitsch.