We decided to take a spur-of-the-moment trip Saturday to check off one of our Florida “must-see” sites, the mermaids at Weeki Wachee State Park. The mermaids perform shows 16-20 feet below the surface of the natural spring to an audience in a theater behind large windows looking out on the underwater world. The amazing underwater performances are set to music with interludes as the mermaids tell us all about their world, somehow talking underwater so we can hear them. We have a feeling that the dialogue might be pre-recorded and the mermaids are just lip-syncing, but that’s just a guess.
We should probably give you a little history of the legendary tourist stop in southwest Florida. Weeki Wachee is a Seminole Indian phrase the means “little spring.” The name in itself is a bit of a misnomer; the surface of the spring may be only a little more than an acre or two but the true depth of the spring is unknown. You’d have trouble reaching the bottom even if you’re an experienced diver since the current coming up from the bottom is pretty swift. 117 million gallons of water bubble up to the surface each day.
The mermaid show was the brainchild of former Navy Frogman Newt Perry. He built an 18-seat theater six feet below the waterline and taught some beautiful and pretty athletic girls how to breathe through free-flowing air hoses supplying oxygen from an air compressor. It created the appearance that they lived underwater. The first show was on October 13, 1947, a day before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The mermaids sometimes had to be sirens, standing along the less-traveled US 19 in their bathing suits to lure the audience in and then diving into the spring to perform.
In 1959 the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) which built the current theater. It seats 400 and is embedded in the side of the spring 20 feet below the surface. ABC was responsible for making the shows more elaborate, having mermaids do whole shows like an Underwater Circus, Alice in Wonderland, and The Wizard of Oz.
The tradition continues to this day even though the spring and show are owned by the State Park System of Florida. During our visit, they were preparing to perform the most appropriate of all stories for the setting, The Little Mermaid.
Our trip to the former roadside attraction and now state park was magical. We gained a new respect for the athleticism of the mermaids. We also enjoyed this nostalgic look at a wholesome form of entertainment that brings wonder and smiles to all ages.