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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!)
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!
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.
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