Scanning Around With Gene: The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee
Despite having made quite few trips to Florida over the years, I’ve never really had an opportunity to see much in the way of tourist attractions, which is too bad, as Florida has (and has had) some great ones. I’ve never been to Disney World or any of the adjacent theme parks, never been to the Cypress Gardens water ski show, never been to see baby alligators, and never had the opportunity to catch the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs. About an hour north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee is located at the crossroads of U.S. 19 and State Road 50.
Weeki Wachee, which is a Seminole Indian name meaning “little spring” or “winding river,” is a very deep-water natural spring in the Weeki Wachee river which is fed by clear water from underground caverns – the spring is said to be so deep that the bottom has never been found. Popular with cave divers, the spring has been used in the filming of many underwater scenes in movies and TV shows as well as for the popular mermaid performances. The Weeki Wachee river runs for 12 miles into the Gulf of Mexico. Click on any image for a larger version.
The mermaid show was first introduced in 1947 by an ex-Navy swimmer named Newton Perry, who determined that the spring would be a perfect place for a roadside attraction. He conceived of a novel way for swimmers to breath underwater sucking air off of hoses hidden in the scenery – it was (and is) apparently a pretty difficult technique that requires quite a bit of practice.
Between gulps of air the mermaids hold their breath for as long as possible while performing various maneuvers, which in the beginning included drinking soda out of a bottle and eating bananas.
Perry built a small underwater theater into the shore where people could watch the mermaids perform. He found pretty girls, trained them to use the air hoses, and supplied them with mermaid costumes and various props. Over the years the show became more and more sophisticated, and after the springs were purchased by ABC in 1959, the company added more elaborate themes and choreography and expanded the theater.
In the early days, the mermaids would run out to the highway in their bathing suits when they heard a car approaching and signal the drivers to stop for the show. Over the years Weeki Wachee bumper stickers were a familiar site in the area and the attraction was very well known (Elvis Presley once attended a show there).
To this day the town of Weeki Wachee is small – it has a population of 9, and the mayor is a former mermaid performer. In the era of thrill rides and mega-theme parks, Weeki Wachee fell on some hard times and almost closed a few times over the decades. It is now owned by the State of Florida and run as a State park.
In addition to the mermaid shows, the park also had small animal shows and bird acts as well as a garden area and gift shop.
In the 1960s, women came from all over the world to try out for mermaid status and the 8 shows a day were often sold out. As many as half a million tourists a year came to Weeki Wachee in those days. Some mermaids lived in small cottages behind the attraction – about 35 mermaids were employed and took turns doing the underwater shows.
These days mermaids (and mermen referred to as “princes”) still perform shows and the park even holds regular mermaid camps for young children who get to try out the mermaid experience (though they don’t get to use the breathing hoses).
I really need to get back to Florida and see the Weeki Wachee mermaid show and other popular roadside attractions (the ones that are still left). Next week we’ll take a look at the water ski performers from Cypress Gardens, another stop along the highway.