One of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions, the Weeki Wachee Springs Mermaid Park celebrates the 70th anniversary of its very first mermaid show.
The inspiration of Newton Perry in 1946, he saw the spring as an excellent business opportunity. Every day at the spring, 117 million gallons of 74-degree, crystal-clear water flows from the spring into the Weeki Wachee River and then 12 more miles into the Gulf of Mexico. His vision was to maximize the natural beauty of the spring with its crystal-clear water and create an entertainment attraction for all members of the family to enjoy.
Perry, who trained Navy SEALS during World War II to breathe underwater, hired a few local girls to be ‘mermaids’ and started training them to breathe underwater using air hoses. They were also given training in etiquette and learned choreographed ballet moves to perform underwater.
And in October 1947, after cleaning out abandoned junk and rusting cars from the spring, the very first mermaid show was performed.
It was an immediate success and by the ‘50s, the mermaid show was one of America’s most popular tourist attractions.
Growing in popularity, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) purchased Weeki Wachee in 1959 and used their network to promote the mermaid attraction throughout America. The theater was also re-engineered to sit lower below the surface of the spring allowing everyone in the theater to see the show. By the mid ‘60s, there were more than 30 mermaids performing eight shows a day to a half-million visitors each year.
In 1982, Buccaneer Bay water park was added featuring five high water slides, a shallow wading area for young children, tubes to rent and a small restaurant and tiki bar close by.
When the park’s 50th anniversary came round in 1997, John Athanason, the park’s Public Relations Manager, said some of the original mermaids were invited to come back and perform. The show became so popular, these former mermaids – or Legendary Sirens as they are called now — still perform their past and present routines regularly.
The Legendary Sirens comprise Mermaids Lydia, Bev, Susie, Rita, Vicki and Maryanne and they said they love being a part of the mermaid park again.
At a recent show, Mermaid Bev said, “I worked here from 1969 to 1972.” “When I was asked to come back and perform, I was delighted because I wanted my family to see me swim and having fun as a grandma.”
Mermaid Susie worked from 1971 to 1973 and said, “I’ve been swimming ever since. You don’t quit playing because you get old, you get old because you stop playing,” she laughed.
Mermaid Rita swam from 1963 to 1968. “I always dreamed of coming back,” she said. “I felt as if I was fish out of water.”
Mermaid Lydia worked at the park from 1969 to 1972 and now her daughter, Lauren, is a mermaid too.
Mermaid Vicki, one of the original mermaids swam from 1957 to 1961.
Her 15 minutes of fame was when performed for Elvis Presley in 1961.
“Boy, he was so cute but, by golly, so was I back then,” she said.
Three other past mermaids were also at the show in November. Pam McDaniel had travelled all the way from California. She worked from 1977 to 1978. Mermaid Nanette and Mermaid Doreen said, “Once a mermaid, always a mermaid.” Nanette swam from 1978 to 1979 and Doreen from 1977 to 1979.
Mermaid Rita explained that the junction at Weeki Wachee in those days was mostly dirt roads and we used to stand at the corner waving and inviting drivers to come see their mermaid show.
Not that they needed to, there was usually only standing room only for each show. It was so busy in its hey-day welcoming visitors from all over the world.
Nicola Melling is one such visitor. She travels regularly from Perth in Scotland to see the mermaids swim.
“As a child living in a tiny village in the wilds of Scotland, I used to read lots of books about magical mythical creatures like mermaids,” she said. And when I saw the film “Splash” with Darryl Hannah, I got hooked on mermaids forever.”
Not that Melling was ever likely to see mermaids in the ice-cold waters off the coast of Scotland but she had read there was a mermaid park in Florida and was determined to visit this place with the unusual name of Weeki Wachee.
“My first visit was way back in the 80s and I was enchanted,” she said. “It was everything I dreamed it would be.”
Now a flight attendant for Virgin Atlantic, whenever she comes to Florida, this is the place she likes to visit for the memories.
Ruby Turner, 65, and a resident of nearby Weeki Wachee Gardens, congratulated Weeki Wachee Springs on its 70th anniversary. Turner has a special bond with the park. A former employee at the park between 1978 and 1985, she worked as a bird trainer. She explained that “once you’ve worked at the park, you’re always a part of it and I’m certain it remains popular because it has old Florida appeal.”
“I came to live here in 1978 from Tarpon Springs — my mom bought a farm in Brooksville and I wanted to be close to her,” she said. “But even before we moved here, the family used to drive up to Weeki Wachee most weekends so we could swim and have fun.”
“I was fortunate to get a job as a bird trainer and, after a few weeks training, I was entertaining visitors to the park with four bird shows a day,” said Turner. “There was the Exotic Bird Show featuring large macaw parrots and cockatoos and the Birds of Prey show featured the hawks, kestrels, owls and eagles,” she said. “We also had two large Lappet-Faced Vultures with 18-foot wing spans.”
“At first, handling the birds was a bit scary; one bite and they can take off your thumb,” she said. “But I did the shows for 7 years leaving in 1985 to join the local newspaper, Hernando Today.”
Duane Chichester, former publisher of Hernando Today, is also celebrating the park’s 70-year history.
“Weeki Wachee Springs is known worldwide for its mermaids, the spring’s crystal-clear waters, the natural beauty of the park and the manatees, said Chichester.
“During my years as publisher of Hernando Today, the park has also been an outstanding community supporter hosting all sorts of community events — large and small — from Hurricane Expos and the Swampfest — to weekend flea markets, he said. “Now that Weeki Wachee Springs has been designated as a Florida State Park, Hernando County residents and visitors from far and wide can continue to celebrate the park’s history and enjoy this fabulous and unique community asset into the future.”