This is the fourth leg of this tour. To read the first leg, click here. If you’re new here, you may wish to start with this post.
Down the road another underwater show takes place seven days a week, several times a day. Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has real mermaids.
The mermaids, of course, are quite real. No, not in that they really have tails instead of legs, and they don’t get their oxygen with gills. Nevertheless, they do perform underwater shows, breathing through air hoses and performing in tails.
Mermaid shows started with Newt Perry. Perry trained World War II Navy SEALS – then called Frogmen – in underwater maneuvers; in 1946, he trained women to drink grape soda underwater. They learned to eat bananas, have picnics, and swim in unison – all while battling a five-mile-an-hour current wrought by a spring that pushed 177 million gallons a day from the earth. Perry took a spring just off a two-lane dirt road and created a theme park that, long before Disney thought to do so, allowed people to pay money for the privilege of believing in a fantasy.
At Weeki Wachee, that fantasy is mermaids. The mermaids perform beneath the big top of Weeki Wachee spring, with audiences watching them from an underwater theatre. Today the shows continue, as do reunion mermaid shows that feature retired mermaids, some of whom swam with Elvis. The reunion shows – called Tails of Yesteryear shows – feature mermaids now well into their 70s. Underwater, these “grandma mermaids” as former mermaid Barbara Wynns calls herself and colleagues, have grace equal to – if not more – than their younger counterparts.
Young mermaids, of course, perform the bulk of the shows. Grandma mermaids help out with mermaid camps for those who want to swim in a mermaid’s tail for a day. The park also has kid camps for aspiring mermaids and mermen, but the reunion shows offer Floridaphiles a peek at the past.
It started in 1997, when park management called former mermaids out of retirement to celebrate the Springs’ 50th anniversary. Lines wound along park paths and out into the parking lot to see 26 former mermaids – some in their 70s – twirl and pirouette under the sea.
One show turned into three that day, and the former mermaids’ Tails of Yesteryear show found its place alongside the current mermaid shows. Once monthly, former mermaids don their tails and slip into the 72-degree water.
They look little like their younger counterparts. These mermaids bear the scars of 40 years of life on land. They birthed babies, had careers, and adjusted to life with legs. None have model-thin figures; a few are outright fat. It doesn’t matter; once they slip into the spring, they are agile, graceful creatures again, eliciting applause and tears from the crowd. The spring washes away weight and wrinkles, and they play out a script from 40 years ago – dancing on the water, suspended in time.
“It’s like water in your veins. We’re still a part of the river, a part of the spring,” Mermaid Vicki Smith, 71, says. A tiny, compact woman who lives on the river, she still giggles with glee when she talks about meeting Elvis as a mermaid.
The audience claps at the regular mermaid shows. At Tails of Yesteryear, people weep. Something – perhaps the joy on the Grandma Mermaids’ faces – speaks to the crowd.
Not everyone loves Weeki Wachee.
My friend Thom Hallock relishes Florida springs but calls this park “the dullest park I’ve ever visited,” and he’s a guy who finds early accounts of French explorers coming to Florida riveting. I love the mermaids, but I see his point: you have to truly love Florida roadside attractions to get this place. Picture yourself in the 60s, driving a Chevy big enough to hold a softball team, down US 19. Suddenly, bathing-clad ladies – mermaids! – beckon you into the park. You’re from Michigan. You have no clue what to expect, but as you take your seat in the underwater theatre and the blue curtain rises, lithe and nubile women twirl and pirouette before you. Weeki Wachee was unparalleled; these women had no competition. The wild bird show, the parrot show (because no Florida roadside attraction was complete without a cockatoo on roller skates), and the chance to meet a real live mermaid enchanted generations of visitors.
Roller coasters, castles, and water parks have all faded the glory of roadside attractions like Weeki Wachee, and folks used to Pixar animation and Disney special effects may look down their nose at those of us who marvel at ladies drinking soda pop underwater. Weeki Wachee, taken over by the state in 2008, pays homage not only to generations of mermaids, but the dying breed of Florida’s roadside attraction. The park may be paler than the bright world of modern tourist attractions, but its patina is all its own.
The springs feed the Weeki Wachee River, and that has no modern day competitor. The river runs clear with a swift current – at five miles an hour, it takes just a little over two hours to reach the Gulf of Mexico. The park service operates a kayak and canoe livery, and they will pick you up at Roger’s Park six miles down the road.
More often than not, I head upriver and then lazily drift back. The sojourn past the houses by Rogers Park takes little effort and gives me plenty to look at: on one side of the river redolent with palms and marsh life, on the other, cartoonish sea life murals adorn sea walls, residents pay homage to Jimmy Buffett with Middle American Tiki-bar decor, and every variation of rope and tire swings dangle from spidery oak trees standing guard over the Weeki Wachee.
Further upriver the homes thin out and the water gets clearer. The odd rope tied to a branch lets people climb trees, dangle over the river, and plunge, feet first, into the crystal clear water. I’ve paddled the river on weekends when the lines for these ropes are long; today is a Tuesday and the lines don’t exist.
As the river gets closer to Weeki Wachee, the homes disappear into copse after copse of trees. The river twines a thin cordon of blue around a march forest. At a stand of trees with a wood platform, I tie my kayak painter to a slender tree trunk and stretch my legs while I eat a sandwich. The water is clear and I see no gators, so I let Calypso stretch her legs, too. When we set off again, we’re headed for home, carried by the current. Calypso curls up on a towel drying on the kayak’s bow. We float by a school of mullet, struggling their way upstream. Like a shot Calypso heaves herself in the water, but we’re moving too fast for her to catch the mullet. She paddles instead to where I sit and puts a paw on the side of the boat. I pull her in the cockpit, use the towel to squeeze river water from her black fur, and have a moment of thanks for clear water and no gators.