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Since 1947 the Weeki Wachee mermaids have lured U.S.19 drivers to a performance 20 feet below the surface inside the deepest freshwater spring in America.

Imagine you’re out cruising down the Two Lanes of central Florida and you see a mermaid waving to you from a rock on the side of the road. You pull over, follow the tropical mirage out of the car and down into a limestone theater submerged 20 feet below the surface of one of the deepest naturally formed underwater caverns in the country. You take your seat and suddenly see mermaids begin darting out of rocks and blowing you bubble kisses inside Weeki Wachee Springs.

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The local lore of the Weeki Wachee mermaid was created as a roadside tourist attraction by Newton Perry, a former member of the U.S. Navy who trained Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II. After the war was over, he needed something to do. One day while out exploring the back roads an hour north of Tampa, he discovered a large spring 12 miles off of The Gulf of Mexico. When he dove into it, he saw it was littered with corroded cars, appliances, and trash that were damaging its ecosystem. Unwilling to let that continue, he organized a cleanup allowing Weeki Wachee Springs to become the hidden treasure it still is today.

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In the process of preserving the spring, Newton recognized its untapped potential to become a place to entertain the Two Lane travelers that were driving so close by. Combining his mastered Navy methods for thriving underwater, and the incredible aquatic scenery he decided to introduce mermaids to the spring.

To enhance the illusion the mermaids were real, he invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen connected to an air compressor versus a hefty tank strapped to their back.

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When word spread about a man in Flordia casting for mermaids, women traveled from as far as Japan in hopes of making the cut. Those who passed the swimming tests and mastered Newton’s underwater breathing/smiling techniques got the job. Not a minute was wasted teaching the girls how to perform synchronized ballet moves, drink beverages, and even eat bananas… all underwater!

During the 1950s, the Weeki Wachee mermaids were one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops. (As many as 1 million visitors per year!) The girls no longer needed to flag down motorists and perform for a mere 18 people in Newtons original underwater theater. Crowds of 400 at a time gathered inside the remodeled million dollar air-conditioned limestone theater for the chance to see a real mermaid.

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Often referred to as “the mountain underwater” Weeki Wachee Springs has 6,700 feet of deep passages including one passage clocking in at 400 feet deep — the deepest recorded in the United States! The water inside is warmed by bubbles escaping subterranean caverns keeping the mermaids comfortable at 74℉. They still use the same underwater breathing system designed by Newton more than 70 years ago. (The original airlocks still rest at the bottom of the spring looking almost like sunken ships!)

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Of course, not all mermaids have tails, long red flowing hair, and seashell bikini tops. Most times, they performed as two-legged women in swimsuits with beauty and grace, but often doing relatable activities. It gave the impression that these were the mermaids next door, just like us, eating a hot dog or get a haircut. Although sometimes they did wear full costumes to act out scenes from The Wizard of Oz or Snow White!

What was magical about these shows was that this was no giant commercial tank the girls were performing in. This freshwater spring came with turtles, fish, manatees, otters and even an occasional alligator swim in the spring with the mermaids, amusing both children and adults. (One unfortunate mermaid, Ruth Ann, was reminded of that when an anaconda snake darted out in front of her during a performance!)

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Shows at Weeki Wachee became so popular that even Elvis Presley pulled over to see the mermaids perform in 1961. They surprised The King that day by incorporating a cutout of his likeness into the show.

Places like Weeki Wachee Springs matter because they’re living, breathing example of years gone by. A place that was forward-thinking and a testimony of true creative innovation. Not only is it special to the millions of people who have visited the spring over the past 70 years, but its influence on the small historic town of Weeki Wachee has been paramount.

As Florida’s original amusement park, the spring has had much success but it has also suffered some struggles. The attraction nearly shut down in 1971 after Walt Disney came to town. With families opting to stay close to the all-inclusive theme park, many travelers and their families were not doing much exploring outside the Disney limits. They also closed again in 2003 until the Weeki Watchi mayor, you guessed it, a former mermaid, partnered with the community to create a successful “Save our Tails,” campaign. It allowed them to not only remain open but to permanently preserve their legacy and continue to welcome guests to the spring as a state park!

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Today the mermaids still perform twice daily paying homage to those who swam before them. If you are really lucky, you’ll get to see a performance by the original mermaids who are all in their sixties now. There’s an abundance of tropical fun to explore on Weeki Wachee’s 530 acres as well. Enjoy orchid gardens, a jungle cruise, or roll out a towel on the beach and swim in the same spring as the mermaids!

The enchanted mermaids of Weeki Wachee still remain today as the oldest, most legendary roadside attraction in the state, taking visitors on an adventure of wonder and magic below the surface.

 

For more unique adventure inspiration, follow Mike Wolfe’s back road brand Two Lanes on Instagram.

For show times and additional information about the Weeki Wachee Mermaids follow them on Instagram or visit their website.

 

 

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17 Comments

17 thoughts on “The Oldest Roadside Attraction in Florida”

  1. Greg H.

    I’ve driven by Weeki Wachee many times in the last 50 years while traveling from Virginia to visit relatives near Tampa and Orlando, but just never had time to stop and check it out. But some day……………………………..

  2. Ella Parker

    So happy to see this article. My mother in law worked at Weeki Wachee in the beginning. Enjoyed meeting Don Knott’s an seeing the Premier of The Incredible Mr. Limpet. My husband and I had the great opportunity to take our first born GrandDaughter to see the Mermaids perform. My mother in law was still very active an loved the pictures an telling our granddaughter her stories. A fantastic woman who had the experience also of working on The Manhattan Project, Oak Ridge Tennessee. Served our country with great pride. How many people have had the privileged an opportunity to experience such a legacy.

  3. Jane A.

    I had no idea this was still around!!!
    My Dad took us on a road trip down to FLA circa 1969-70. We went here and it turned out to be the highlight of our trip. We thought it was incredible.
    Then we went to an aligator farm and then to a swamp location where they had glass bottom boats.
    It was so much fun. Great family memories that are cherished.

  4. Jane Soares

    I LOVE this Place & We LIVE just down the road from it Too ! My Son Did his EAGLE SCOUT ( 2011 ) Project there We rebuilt the WHOLE Dock that comes out from the Show & put up the ADA Railing. WHAT an AWESOME Memory you Shared with the WORLD. THANK YOU !!! And feel free to Visit anytime.

  5. Lynn

    I live in weeki wachee, and the park is still open.and it is packed in the summer, the kids go there.they have a water slide, food.
    Places to swim.
    You can go kayaking down the river. It take about 3.5 hours to go.
    But you will see all kinds of wild life. Very much worth the trip.
    The whole park is worth your trip.
    So if you get the chance check out the mermaid park..
    You wont be disappointed!!

  6. Al Grant

    The first mermaids must have located the fountain of youth! This article states some are still performing in their 60’s I saw them perform in the late 40’s and I am in my 90’s. Great show 70 years ago, and pleased it could be saved.

  7. Rafael Torrens

    Living in Florida, our favorite summertime activity is driving around the state, looking for new things to do. A couple of Summers ago, we went to visit the Mermaids. One of our favorite things, ever! We made a day of it, also jumping in the spring itself.

  8. Robert Brown

    It is great seeing this old promo video of Weeki Watchee. There are so few of the old roadside attractions still operating. It brings back some great memories from my childhood when my mom and I used to travel to Florida from Ohio and stopped several times to see the show. Will check it out again if I get in the vicinity. So glad to see that it’s still in operation.

  9. RT Taylor

    Great article, I had no idea there was a place like this but will certainly add to my bucket list for a visit. Thanks for keeping the history going!

  10. Troy Burris

    This is my backyard. I’ve known girls that were mermaids and have grown up here. Great river to kayak or tube down. I’m old school Florida and this area is still old school Florida. My family are Florida crackers and this has been an awesome place to grow up!! I’m a picker at heart and saw in the paper where the guys were coming down this way to citrus county. Wish I could’ve met up with them.

  11. Jodi K Day

    Weeki Wachee is only one of many Nostalgic historical pieces of Florida’s history of roadside attractions. Before Walt Disney World came, along in 1971, mostly old Florida roadside attractions were themed the state’s tropical beauty and were unique in having a “distinct personality.”
    As a ltitle girl, my twin sister and I always loved seeing the mermaids at Weeki Wachee. Myself and twin …and most All my family are all 5th generation natives of Florida. Our great-great-grandfather was the first mayor of Clearwater Florida – when Clearwater was incorporated as a city in the mid-to-late 1800s.
    In 2003 I had the honor to get my freshwater scuba license practice done in the cool spring waters of Weeki Wachee, where these beautiful women performed their Roadside Attraction ballet dance in the water. The only thing I could think of when I was down there doing my freshwater dive practice, was being in the same exact spot as those beautiful ladies, I felt so fortunate.
    I am so proud to be a native from Florida and the Tampa Bay area. Though, now that I’ve been here a half a century, I’m excited to move out of Tampa Bay to North Florida where all our old history Still Remains and there’s plenty of beautiful country and Hillside.
    Since 2010 the Tampa Bay area has grown 40%, and it takes almost an hour just to get from St Petersburg Eastern side over to the beach on the West … in which to a FL native, we don’t like driving more than 20 minutes to go anywhere LOL …back in the day, Florida was the Vacation State… no one everactually lived here…. they vacationed here, then they left to go backnorth home… Floridians have a saying for the tourists …come on vacation leave on probation LOL nevertheless …enjoy our Florida history …it’s both distinct and unique… just like the natives

  12. John Anderson

    I grew up in South Florida after moving there as a child in 1968. I had always wanted to see the mermaids at Weeki Watchee but never got the chance! At that time before Disney World, all of the Florida attractions were advertised in motel lobbies in racks of cardboard placards with pictures and little maps. I did get to see Silver Springs, Monkey Jungle and Parrot Jungle, Miami Seaquarium. Most are gone to development or destroyed by hurricanes over the years. (Placards and telephone books were never allowed at Disney World so that tourists would not be tempted to wander outside their “World.”)
    I had to suffer the slings and arrows of being an old nostalgiac when I finally brought my family to Weeki Watchee a few years ago on my planned detour on the way to southwest Florida. I was thrilled to finally see the famous mermaids and to have my picture taken with them after the show–a classic! Potentially better, I was able to purchase a wax souvenir statue of a mermaid from a vending machine that forms it in front of you in a window while you wait… All the great sights of Florida had them and they were also featured in the old Florida Turnpike rest areas that also offered fresh squeezed orange juice for free!

  13. Jeannie Lawson

    My grandfather worked there in the 60’s in public relations. My siblings and I would take turns going with him to work during the summer. We were allowed to take a friend with us. We had all day to go on each attraction over and over again. I remember the mermaid shows, the river cruise and I think a train ride that wound around the park. Such great memories! I haven’t visited the attraction since then. This article makes me want to go again.

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