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Mermaid underwater.
Early, heavy rubber tails were for posing, not swimming, at Weeki Wachee.

Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

Field review by the editors.

Weeki Wachee, Florida

Coke and banana.
Soda pop and banana, a "Mermaid Picnic" since the first Weeki Wachee shows.

"We're not like other women
We don't have to clean an oven
And we nev-er will grow olllllllllld....
We've got the world by the tail!"

-- Weeki Wachee theme song

For 75 years the mermaids of Weeki Wachee have beguiled Florida visitors, swimming weightlessly in their crystal-clear spring, defying time and fashion trends while other Sunshine State attractions have sunk to the bottom of Davy Jones' Locker.

Weeki Wachee's mermaids were the fever dream of Newt Perry, a trainer of Navy frogmen during World War II. Newt knew that humans could survive underwater by breathing air pumped through a hose by a compressor.

"He envisioned beautiful women performing underwater ballet," said John Athanason, Weeki Wachee PR manager. "Newt called them 'mermaids' but back then they didn't have tails."

Perry bolted a small underwater viewing "theatre" -- really just a big tank -- into the side of the limestone spring, cleared out the rusted refrigerators and cars, and staged Weeki Wachee's first show on October 13, 1947. Waitresses, students, and other young local women struck graceful poses, demonstrated tricks of buoyancy, and held a "Mermaid Picnic" -- drinking soda out of bottles and eating bananas underwater.

Underwater Theatre circa 1965. No tails on the mermaids or kids in the audience.
Underwater Theatre circa 1965. No tails on the mermaids, no kids in the audience.

They were a hit. At the time, a typical image of life under the sea featured grim men in bulky diving suits (sometimes with disastrous consequences). The scantily-clad mermaids were free of man-heavy technology and seemed perfectly at ease in Weeki Wachee's crystalline water. In 1959 Newt sold out to ABC TV, which built a much larger clamshell-roof theater (still in use today) and upped the entertainment value with theme shows such as Alice in Waterland (1965), Mermaids on the Moon (1970), and Pocahontas Meets Little Mermaid (1997). The gaudy props and costumes gave structure to the underwater shenanigans.

Newt Perry builds Weeki Wachee in 1947.
Newt Perry builds Weeki Wachee in 1947.

Current performances at Weeki Wachee are not quite as zesty, but watching a show at the "Spring of Live Mermaids" is still much the same as it was a half-century ago.

Prerecorded music plays as the theater drapes slowly rise, unveiling panoramic windows 100 feet wide. A curtain of bubbles parts to reveal the turquoise spring and its underwater women, illuminated by shafts of Florida sunlight. Schools of small fish and turtles swim into view, nipping at the mermaids' fingers and hair. The mermaids kindly bat the creatures away and blow kisses to the crowd.

"The biggest misconception visitors have is that the mermaids swim in an aquarium or a tank," said John. "You're in the tank; the mermaids are out in the open water." And that's no picnic, despite its repeated appearances in Weeki Wachee performances. The water is cold, the current is strong, and snakes and alligators sometimes make unwanted guest appearances.

Alice in Waterland.
Soda pop and banana find their way into the "Alice in Waterland" tea party.

We spoke with Mermaid Charlene, who told us that her job was "not easy at all" and explained how difficult it is to look graceful while performing synchronized underwater ballet moves and backflips in a fabric fish tail. Grueling auditions quickly thin the ranks of mermaid wannabes, including a 300-yard endurance swim and treading water for ten minutes -- and that's just the first interview.

Mermaids have to be able to cross the span of the theatre windows in a single breath and freedive 117 feet to the mouth of the spring. "It takes up to six months of training before a mermaid swims even one part of a show," said John. "As for how you look, what we care about is that you don't look panicked."

Months of hard work produce smoothly-run Weeki Wachee productions such as The Little Mermaid, which delivers plenty of feminine fins for today's more literal-minded mermaid crowd; and the Fish Tales review, a kind of Greatest Hits of Weeki Wachee underwater acrobatics, with its rousing finale performed to Lee Greenwood's, "God Bless the USA."

Improved tail technology makes it easier - but not easy - to be a modern mermaid.
Improved tail technology makes it easier - but not easy - to be a modern mermaid.

"Sometimes I swim three shows a day [each 30 minutes long] and come home exhausted," Charlene told us. "But it's still the best job in the world and I want to do it as long as I can."

Charlene's long-term mermaid prospects are bright thanks to the state of Florida, which purchased Weeki Wachee in 2008 (All Weeki Wachee mermaids are now state employees). A similar fate befell Weeki Wachee's main competitor, Aquarena Springs, in Texas in 1996 -- except that the state turned the park into a nature preserve and kicked out the mermaids. The Sunshine State was smarter; it turned Weeki Wachee into a nature preserve and kept the mermaids, giving them a kind of Protected Species status as an icon of Old Florida tourism. As a result, Weeki Wachee has become free to freeze itself in history, offering visitors a glimpse of what roadside entertainment was like when the President was Eisenhower.

Formerly out-of-date, Weeki Wachee is now fashionably retro. "Mermaids are timeless," John put it neatly. "When the curtain rises and you see that beautiful spring and those mermaids, just get out of the way and let the magic happen."

And bring the soda pop and bananas.

Also see: Pocahontas-Little Mermaid Show Lyrics | Classic Show Themes

Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee, FL
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. On the west side of US Hwy 19/Commercial Way just south of Cortez Blvd.
Daily shows at 10, 12, 1:30, and 3. (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
$13 park entrance fee. The mermaid show is free.
RA Rates:
The Best
Save to My Sights
Roadside Videos
75 Years of Tail

75 Years of Tail.

Weeki Wachee Springs marked its 75th year as an essential Florida stop for every Roadside American.Go to video

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