Ever since I was a kid and saw Darryl Hannah don a fish tail in the 1984 film Splash, I’ve been intrigued by mermaids. I’m not the only one. The mythological sea creatures have been a part of folklore in cultures around the world for centuries.
Sailors would often see manatees swimming in the ocean and believed the aquatic animals were beautiful young women with the lower bodies of a fish. I guess that’s what happens when you spend too much time at sea.
While there’s never been evidence mermaids ever actually existed and while alleged “sightings” still happen from time to time, there’s only one place you’re guaranteed to see them while visiting Florida. And that place is the world-famous Weeki Wachee Springs about an hour’s drive north of Tampa.
“Weeki Wachee” means “Little Spring” or “Winding River” in the Seminole language and is also the name of the city where the natural attraction is located. However, calling Weeki Wachee a city might be a bit of a stretch. Depending on who you talk to or what records you consult, this little community has a population of anywhere between 3 and 12 people, making it one of the smallest cities in the U.S.
University of Florida alum Newton Perry gained a reputation in the 1920s and 1930s for being a stunt swimmer and served as the model for aquatics safety manuals published by the American Red Cross. After demonstrating his skills in a number of short films that played before featured movies in theaters across the country, Perry became known as the “best swimmer in America” and was sometimes referred to as “The Human Fish.”
In 1946, Perry came to Weeki Wachee, nothing more than a remote outpost at the time, and envisioned starting a new business on the site. After trial and error, he developed a new method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose that supplied oxygen from an air compressor rather than a tank strapped onto a swimmer’s back. The invention gave swimmers the appearance of being able to stay underwater for long periods of time without the aid of a breathing apparatus.
Perry started auditioning attractive young women for his new attraction and trained them on how to look natural and pretty while using the air hoses hidden in the scenery.
A theater was submerged several feet below the surface of the spring for visitors to watch Perry’s live mermaids perform an underwater ballet synchronized to recorded music.
The concept was a huge success. After opening in 1947, the roadside attraction received worldwide acclaim and became one of the nation’s top tourist spots. Movies and television shows were recorded at the springs and celebrities like Don Knotts, Esther Williams and even Elvis stopped in to see the show.
During the attraction’s heyday in the 1960s, the mermaids performed up to eight shows a day in front of sold-out crowds. It’s estimated up to half a million people a year saw the performances. Women from as far away as Japan would audition for the coveted role of being a Weeki Wachee mermaid.
But America’s appetite for kitschy roadside attractions like Weeki Wachee began to fizzle in the 1970s following the opening of Walt Disney World down the road in Orlando. As many of Florida’s original attractions shuttered for good during the 1980s and 1990s, Weeki Wachee managed to hang on and was taken over by the Florida state park service in 2008.
Today, visitors can still see mermaids perform in the underwater theater just like they did 50 years ago. While music and some production elements have changed, it’s gratifying to see the fundamentals of the show haven’t changed. It’s classic Old Florida on full display in all its glory.
People sometimes wait up to an hour or more to secure a seat for the mermaid show, which usually lasts about 30 minutes.
On the day we visited, they performed underwater feats to several musical numbers during the popular “Fish Tails” show. We never managed to shake the vintage, and surprisingly catchy, Weeki Wachee theme song. We hummed it the rest of the day.
The show ended with a stirring tribute to America that had many in the audience on their feet applauding.
In addition to the mermaid shows, the Weeki Wachee property features the state’s only spring-fed water park Buccaneer Bay, an informative wilderness river cruise, animal show, gift shop, and several eateries where you can get everything from burgers and fries to ice cream and snacks. Admission is a very reasonable $13 for adults while kids 6-12 get in for $8. Those prices include all the shows and attractions, including access to the water park.
Watch Our Snapchat Video From Weeki Wachee Springs State Park