By MEGAN HUSSEY
Since 1946, when Navy veteran Newton Perry opened the doors of Weeki Wachee Springs, the park has served as a place of otherworldly fantasy for both local residents and tourists around the world. A place where beautiful mermaids and handsome princes swim in graceful congress with the creatures of the sea in live water shows, where the 7.5-mile Weeki Wachee River flows long and smooth, and where all manner of exotic flora and fauna grow on land. Nearby at Weekiwachee Preserve, visitors walk, jog, swim, boat, fish, birdwatch, photograph and hike more than 11,000 acres of scenic conservation lands and waters. And at Weeki Wachee's Buccaneer Bay, guests spiral down four water slides before splashing into the springs.
Yet sometimes, just sometimes, the troubles of the real world intrude even through the borders of magical lands and waters. And today, when one visits the website of Weeki Wachee Springs, they see a banner that reads, "At the direction of Governor DeSantis, we are closed until further notice to successfully uphold CDC guidance and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Thank you for your understanding." (https://weekiwachee.com/) And a walk through Weekiwachee Preserve and the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Hiking Trail reveals signs and boards that block public access to the popular preserve.
A visit to the Florida State Parks Facebook page reveals further information regarding the closures.
"At the direction of Governor DeSantis and to successfully uphold CDC guidance, DEP will close all Florida State Parks to the public effective Monday, March 23. DEP has taken many measures to continue providing resource recreation at our state parks during this time, such as limiting operating hours and reducing visitor capacity at parks with high visitation," the page explains. "Unfortunately, this has not resulted in the reductions needed to best protect public health and safety as Florida continues to mitigate the spread of COVID-19."
Yet amongst the closings and the show cancellations, the signs and the boards, the spirit of Weeki Wachee thrives and survives. And now John Athanason, Development Rep. I at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, has a promise for the people of Hernando County.
"Things might not be back to normal," he said. "But until it is, Weeki Wachee will continue to bring the magic."
Even with the park closed, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee are still on the job; answering fan mail and training underwater on a regular basis.
"The mermaids are training at the park with social distancing in place, and park rangers and staff are here to take care of natural resources," said Athanason. "And to combat the doom and gloom and to entertain kids in quarantine and out of school, we're filling our social media feeds with positive content."
A prime example of this content is the Tail Mail program, a videotaped correspondence program in which Weeki Wachee mermaids answer letters from students under the age of 17. This decade-old program, sponsored by the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, is intended to encourage literacy and good penmanship among students. It calls upon children to handwrite a letter to their favorite mermaid or Prince, asking about their natural environment or anything else mermaid related. They also are welcome to include any drawings, coloring pages, photos, paper necklaces, etc., as gifts for their favored merfolk. All letters should include the name of the child, the age of the child, and an email address or phone number for their parent or guardian.
All letters can be mailed to:
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Attn: “Tail Mail”
6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee, FL 34606.
In response to their Tail Mail, each participating child receives an autographed photo of their favorite mermaid. The mermaid also will read and respond to each letter in a videotaped message posted on the Weeki Wachee Facebook page and Twitter page.
"This is a great program that enables the mermaids to interact with children from around the world," said Athanason.
Kids who submit Tail Mail come prepared with a plethora of questions for the mermaids, ranging from the exact length of their tails to the extent of their magical powers, to how they breathe, dance and drink cola underwater and if their cosmetics are indeed waterproof. They send drawings of their favorite mermaids, sometimes including their own likenesses as they imagine swimming side by side with their idols.
"Mermaids are celebrities to these kids," Athanason explained.
And the mermaids, he says, love to answer Tail Mail.
"The mermaids love getting Tail Mail," he reveals. "They're giddy and excited, they can't wait to open the letters."
When one visits the Weeki Wachee Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/WeekiWacheeSprings/) these days, hints of the real world remain apparent; with one mother reporting that her young daughter was concerned about the possibility of mermaids contracting the COVID-19 virus. The mother reassured her daughter that the mermaids were quarantined in the sea. And a family in the UK posted to express their regrets that they had been forced to cancel their planned spring trip to Weeki Wachee.
Yet a look down the page reveals endless videos of mermaids swimming the springs with starfish and manatees at their sides--and, of course, answering daily rounds of Tail Mail.
Because before they were mermaids and princes, park managers and development managers, the folks at Weeki Wachee were kids themselves.
"When I was a little kid, I wrote fan letters to NFL players Joe Montana and Earl Campbell, and they wrote back," said Athanason. "I'll never forget my feelings of excitement."
"That's the kind of feeling we want to give these kids," he said. "Especially right now."