Have you ever had a place in your mind that was so exotic, so wonderful, so otherworldly that you couldn’t imagine ever being able to see it in person? Perhaps as a child you were thumbing through a magazine, watching a television program or even surfing the internet when suddenly, there it was! That place that couldn’t possibly exist in real life, that place that captured your imagination so completely that you never forgot it. That place that in your wildest dreams you’d never actually see in real life.
For me, that place was Weeki Wachee Springs Florida.
I know! I know! It’s not exactly the Eiffel Tower but…
THEY HAVE MERMAIDS!
I’m a child of the 1960’s. Television was still relatively new, a lot of programs were black and white and many were travelogues featuring tourist destinations that we couldn’t imagine ever visiting. Foreign travel was a luxury most couldn’t afford, road trips were king. Some people would travel a few states away, usually to visit family but the rest of us never even got that far.
I grew up in a small town in the mountains of Southern California. The furthest I’d ever traveled was to San Diego, about 125 miles away, so Florida might as well have been the moon.
My father and Godfather were artists and my parents were active in community theater. That coupled with trips to Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, Calico Ghost Town and other fantastical places provided potent fuel for my imagination. Unicorns, mermaids and fairy tales were my drug of choice.
So it was, that one day, while watching TV, a program featuring the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs came on. I was astounded! I was young, but old enough to realize that mermaids aren’t real. I was captivated by the costumes and skill the women had in order to stay submerged for so long. The beauty, artistry and athleticism was on a level I’d never experienced before. Over the years, I’d see stories of the mermaids from time to time and my fascination never wavered. I wanted so badly to see them in person but Florida was still so far away.
Fast forward about 50 years and here we are!
I’ll admit it, I’m giddy with excitement!
A little history of Weeki Wachee Springs from their website:
Weeki Wachee springs is one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions.
In 1946, Newton Perry, a former US Navy man who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, scouted out Weeki Wachee as a good spot for a new business. At the time, US 19 was a small two lane road. All other roads were dirt; there were no gas stations, no groceries and no movie theaters. More alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans.
Sadly the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars. The junk was cleared and Newt experimented with underwater breathing hoses. He invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor, rather than from a tank strapped to the back. With the air hose, humans could give the appearance of thriving 20 feet underwater with no breathing apparatus.
Submerged six feet below the water’s surface, an 18 seat theater was built into the limestone so viewers could look right into the natural beauty of the ancient spring.
Newt scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time. He taught them to drink Grapette, a non carbonated beverage, eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets. He then put a sign out on US 19 that read: Weeki Wachee. On October 13, 1947 the first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs Underwater Theater opened.
In the 1950’s Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops and movies were filmed at the spring. Through the years the attraction grew and expanded.
Today the theater seats 400 and is 16 feet underwater. The mermaids perform theatrical shows and from time to time, former mermaids come back to perform in The Mermaids of Yesteryear.
Weeki Wachee Springs is still extremely popular. It is currently a State Park which includes a swimming area, waterpark, boat ride and wildlife show. Admission is first come, first served. They advise arriving at opening time which is 9AM because the park often reaches capacity. Admission price (at the time of our visit in May of 2018) was $13.00. The price includes all attractions, including the mermaid show, which has three show times throughout the day. There are restaurants on site and the parking lot is large enough for RV’s.
Once inside the gates, it was a little early so we wandered around a bit and then got in line for the show. I wasn’t about to miss it!
Waiting outside the theater you are standing right above the spring overlooking the waterpark.
The waterpark is blocked off by buoys and if you look very closely at the middle left of the picture you can see two mermaid swimmers warming up in the show part of the spring.
This is the back side of the theater. The windows into the spring are under the water line.
This little guy was waiting in line with us.
Once inside the theater, a wall of curtains is directly in front, while on either side monitors play scenes from historical mermaid shows.
Sorry for the blur, it was difficult to photograph.
In the early years, most of the shows were a serious of stunts and acrobatic ballet. Later, they experimented with a story format.
This is Alice in Wonderland.
Before the show begins, a few facts about the spring that makes what the athletes do even more amazing.
The spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found. Recently divers have begun mapping out the cave system to 407 feet deep but they are still exploring. Each day more than 117 million gallons of water bubbles up from the subterranean caverns. The water is a comfortable 74 degrees. Deep in the spring the current is so strong it can knock a divers mask off. Where the mermaids swim, 16 to 20 feet below the surface, the current runs a strong five miles an hour. The mermaids must fight this current to stay in place as well as balance the amount of air they take in and expel out in order to remain submerged. They do all this while their legs are bound together, performing stunts, acrobatic moves, smiling and looking pretty at the same time!
If you’re planning to see the show in the near future, be aware that the following story contains spoilers.
Today’s performance is the classical story of The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid and her sisters.
The bell structure at the back is a rescue bell which has extra oxygen supplies. If you really want to be impressed, google “behind the scenes” videos of the show. The mermaids enter the spring through a long narrow tunnel, which is enough to give anyone with claustrophobia sympathetic breathlessness!
Air hoses are strategically placed around the spring but the mermaids keep a tight hold on them most of the time.
The show is accompanied by music and narration and I am again amazed that the actions of the swimmers are synchronized perfectly with the soundtrack. In between scenes a “curtain” of bubbles obscures the spring.
The theater geek in me loves this effect.
Next scene, cue the historic seahorse.
Now and then there is a reminder that the mermaids are swimming in a natural spring which leads to the ocean. Sea life is free to come and go. I’ve heard stories of manatees and the occasional shark. In this picture you can see the fish who chose to be part of the show today.
The ferris wheel is the hardest trick. It is one of the few times the swimmers drop their hoses. Everyone must fight the current and their natural buoyancy to stay in place or the trick is ruined.
Oh no! A prince has fallen overboard!
He needs air!
The prince and the Little Mermaid perform a beautiful, intricate ballet while sharing one hose.
But wait…A turtle friend drops in to perform a few moves. It seems pretty random to me, maybe it’s their answer to Disney’s animal friends. I believe the real reason is some comic relief in order to give the divers a break, they must be exhausted!
In my opinion, the absolute best part of the show was when the Sea Witch showed up. The girl who played this part was the most expressive, energetic and skilled performer thus far. She had a real ability to communicate through every move she made.
And her costume was the best!
I loved her! Look at that face! Fierce!
UH! OH! I sense trouble!
The spell is cast.
The Little Mermaid has legs!
The sisters come out to perform when suddenly…
…there’s a commotion at the back of the theater.
It’s the Little Mermaid and her prince.
Oh no! It’s the Sea Witch!
The Little Mermaid and the prince run out.
Let the battle begin!
She’s vanquished! Happily ever after!
Big finale with all the characters.
..and just when you think it’s safe to leave, gathering belongings and heading for the exit…
A piercing, bloodcurdling scream splits the air and the Sea Witch pops out of the hatch!
Laughing because everyone jumped six feet into the air.
Scared the ever lovin’ outta me!
The show was everything I ever imagined and more. A true bucket list, dream come true.
The park has other attractions to enjoy, so after a quick bite to eat at a little snack bar, we ventured over to the wildlife show.
The wildlife show is a short, small, educational talk about the native wildlife of the area.
The talk was interesting and we learned a few new things.
This wildlife chose not to be part of the show.
Right next to the wildlife theater is a little “nature” trail loop and picnic area.
A boat ride down the springs is our next stop.
The colorful, clear spring water we can see from the loading area offers a tantalizing peak of the boat ride ahead.
There goes our ride. Guess we’ll get the next one.
The water is so clear, the fish are easy to see.
Once on the boat, our driver keeps up a lively narrative, describing the sights and explaining a little history. He has to keep a close eye on the traffic, the spring is fairly crowded with kayakers.
Trees grow in the water.
Our guide points out an eagle’s nest but no one is home today.
Can you see the bird in the nest above? Pretty well camouflaged.
There is a nature school at the far end of our journey. The kids take kayak trips learning about nature as they go. From this point on the water becomes too shallow for our boat so we turn around.
Along the return trip, signs that the nature school put up are visible. They describe the plant and animal life.
While the water is shallow enough to walk in, there is no swimming allowed in this part of the spring. People sneak in anyway and our boat operator has to yell at a couple who are in the water without a boat.
The scenery is stunning and it was a peaceful pleasant ride.
We have enough time for a quick trip to the fantastical, vibrant, gift shop full of mermaid merchandise where I purchased a magnet for my stove. Only bucket list excursions are worthy of a stove magnet.
A couple of quick photo ops and our day is done.
Should have had someone take our picture poor Jeff is mermaidless.
If you have a love of old school Roadside America as I do, I urge you to visit Weeki Wachee Springs. It’s one of the oldest attractions that still retains its original spirit. We had a blast!
There is one footnote to this post. Later that evening, we met some relatives for dinner. They live near Inverness, Florida. After our meal, they took us on a drive through town where we stopped at the Citrus County Courthouse which was built in 1912.
If you look closely, you can see a silhouette of Elvis Presley in the top, right window. Apparently Elvis and his entourage, including boat, RV and Cadillac, arrived in Florida to film his 9th movie “Follow That Dream.” For the next six weeks, Citrus County hosted actors, crew members, extra’s and the King himself.
In addition to that claim to fame, the county has several historic buildings and museums. It looks like I’ll have to add this to my list of places to explore another time…