Despite a recent report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that “no evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found,” fans of Florida kitsch and retro culture know better. In fact, perhaps the world’s most famous coterie of real-life mermaids has performed in the waters of Weeki Wachee Springs for 65 years.
The legendary tourist attraction will be holding its 65th Anniversary Mermaid Reunion on Friday through Sunday, July 13-15, including shows featuring both current and retired mermaids. Weeki Wachee proudly embraces its history and holds regular events for its alumnae. But the anniversary weekend is the biggest, serving as a class reunion for the many women who have performed in the crystal clear waters.
There will be special shows all weekend, plus the alumnae will enjoy special swims in the spring, plus a dinner (presumably on dry land), and other reunion activities. For Weeki Wachee visitors, it will be a unique opportunity to see multi generations of performers who brought style and grace to one of the world’s most unusual attractions.
In addition to the 500-seat submerged theater for watching the live mermaid shows, the 538-acre park includes a river boat cruise, birds and reptiles, canoeing and kayaking on the Weeki Wachee River, plus a beach and water slide area known as Buccaneer Bay.
The Seminole Indians named the spring Weeki Wachee, which means “little spring” or “winding river.” The entire site is unique and includes the deepest fresh-water cave system in the United States. The ancient spring is so deep, the bottom has never been located. More than 100 million gallons of clear, fresh 72-degree water bubble up out of subterranean caverns every day.
The classic roadside attraction was opened in 1947 by entrepreneur Newton Perry, who had a vision of performances that used underwater hoses to allow the women in mermaid costumes to stage synchronized ballets in the clear-water springs. Perry learned air-hose breathing techniques during his days as a Navy SEAL. The first theater had just 18 seats.
Weeki Wachee got a big boost in 1959, when the ABC television network bought it and built the current theater. The shows became much more elaborate, and the attraction had a great run as one of Florida’s premiere destinations. ABC developed themes for the underwater shows, and the mermaids also performed classics such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Snow White.
In the ’60s heyday, it attracted around a half-million people a year and featured eight shows at day, seven days a week. The park’s popularity declined in the 1970s and ’80s as more modern attractions proliferated, but in recent decades interest began to grow in the site’s historic significance. In 1997, the park began bringing back former mermaids to perform, and these shows now play to standing-room-only crowds.
The attraction’s future and stability were ensured when Florida took over Weeki Wachee Springs as a state park in 2008. The mermaid theater is being restored to its former glory, and today’s revival of retro kitsch is fueling renewed interest in this unique slice of Florida and American pop culture.
Since Weeki Wachee is a state park, it also includes picnic pavilions and a reasonable admission price ($13 for adults, $8 for ages 6-12, free for kids 5 and under). Parking is free. The location is off the beaten path, but not too far a drive from Tampa (45 minutes to the north) and Orlando (two hours to the west). It’s on U.S. 19 at State Road 50, just north of Spring Hill and south of Homosassa Springs.