Guys. I am here today not with a flippant travel tale, but with a serious, significant public service announcement to share. Science and society have lied to you for too long, and I am here to set the record straight.
Mermaids are real.
I arrived in Tampa, Florida, as I have so many other times throughout my life, to visit my dad’s side of the family there. For the majority of the week, my aunts and I kicked around, I worked while they worked, and we enjoyed laid-back evenings with ample couch time, homemade family dinners and group gossip sessions. Over the weekend, however, my dad and sister descended to Florida to join us, and I enlisted the whole crew on a critical mission.
We were going to Weeki Wachee, Florida — land of the mermaids.
I first learned of the mermaid’s existence in 2013, when my dad forwarded me a feature in the New York Times entitled “The Last Mermaid Show.” It chronicled the drama-filled 68 year history of a Weeki Wachee park, a natural fresh water spring turned mermaid theater — a phenomenon that would never be allowed with today’s strict environmental protection laws. My dad knows me well — it was the perfect combo of aquatic adventure, girly glamor, and Old Florida kitsch. I had to see it for myself.
A little over an hour after leaving Tampa, we approached the town of Weeki Wachee, population 12 — according to the 2004 census, anyway. The mayor herself is a former mermaid, elected at 27 as one of the youngest mayors in the United States. Today, Weeki Wachee Springs are part of the Florida State Park system, and the mermaids who swim its waters are state employees. But it was a long road to get here. Started in 1947 by an enterprising underwater enthusiast who saw the untapped entertainment potential of the beautiful natural springs off US-19, Weeki Wachee was later purchased by ABC and hit its peak as a roadside tourist attraction in the Florida’s heyday of the 1960’s.
Arriving in the early afternoon, we rushed to the theater to nab seats to Fish Tails, the first of two shows performed by mermaids in the park.
As the curtain rose, I was as giddy as any of the toddlers fidgeting on their wooden bench seats. I can’t tell what my family was more bemused by — the show, or my own enthralled reaction to it. Fish Tails features a heavy dose of nostalgia, reliving the history of mermaids past via a sentimental video as the real-life, current crew wriggles in the chilly waters in front of us.
We were walked through the technical aspects of how the mermaids breathe via hoses, and enter the springs through tunnels and chutes connected to their underground dressing rooms. While the young women waving peacefully through the glass made their feats look easy, in reality they are battling strong currents, buoyancy challenges and low temperatures — it can take new mermaids three to four months of training to be ready for their first show.
At one point, a lazy turtle swam in front of the audience, oblivious to the show he’d unwittingly become a cast member in. Occasionally, rumor has it, manatees do the same.
Having read much of the threat of the park’s impending demise, I was pleased to see that on this sunny Saturday in Central Florida, the crowds had come out. In the early 2000’s, the park was under such financial strain that many former mermaids banded together to create Save Our Tails, a campaign to keep the attraction afloat.
A flush of attention in the form of viral online articles, news segments, an episode of The Simple Life and even a boost given by Jimmy Buffet using the mermaid’s footage in his live performances seems to be getting audiences interested again — at least for now.
The extravaganza concluded with an underwater unfurling of the American flag as “Proud to be an American” poured out of the loudspeaker. My sister and I whipped our heads around and locked giddy eyes, mouthing in unison the name of song from a favorite scene on our beloved Parks and Recreation.
First mermaid show of the day down, we set off to see what else Weeki Wachee had to offer. At just $13, an entrance ticket here pales in comparison to the three digit price tags of most Orlando theme parks, though a full day of entertainment can easily be had here between a wildlife boat ride, animal shows, two mermaid performances, a restaurant, and gift shop and a small waterpark that at the time of our visit was closed for the winter season.
And did I mention that there were peacocks?
With time to spare until our next mermaid show, we meandered over to the daily animal talk, for which our collective expectations were low.
We were pleasantly surprised, however, when the woman presenting the bored-looking reptiles seemed to have a real passion for her job, and had the entire audience in stitches several times. We even learned a thing or two.
And then we were off to The Galley for lunch. While we somewhat dismayed to see other visitors smoking, carelessly tossing garbage aside and feeding wild animals within a state park, I can’t say that we were enormously surprised. In fact, we watched with eyebrows raised high in judgement as a park employee threw cookie and chip scraps at the gathered peacocks, and responded to a visitor asking where he could light up, “I don’t give a damn where you smoke.”
We, however, took the high road, and did not participate in any wildlife feeding.
Finally, it was time for the second highlight of the day — Weeki Wachee’s own version of The Little Mermaid. Fans of the Disney soundtrack shouldn’t start cuing up Under the Sea just yet — understandably, given the park’s budget woes, they have not licensed to those beloved hits. Instead, the original soundtrack is accompanied by a cast of six characters, a surprise-filled storyline (I personally did not expect a large turtle-suited person to emerge from a giant clamshell mid-scene, anyway), and plenty of special effects.
We were delighted.
Even my sister, who had been hesitant to stick around for round two, agreed that each performance had its own merits and was well worth watching.
As the curtain lowered again, we waved goodbye to our finned friends with heavy hearts.
But there was still more to see. Before heading back to Tampa, we hopped on a thirty-minute wildlife cruise, fully included in our ticket price. We had a few minutes of waiting impatiently on the boat before departure, which was enough time to school a three-year old on the incorrect manatee facts she was spouting, nab a few selfies, and discuss whether or not we’d return to kayak or Stand Up Paddleboard the springs someday (I, clearly, voted a resounding yes and kicked myself for not knowing those options were available earlier.)
The springs were beautiful, and we were all taken aback by the amount of wildlife we actually did spot — fish, turtles, a variety of birds, and even a few shy manatees.
Our guide was exactly what you’d expect of a man who’s spent his entire life working in a town with a population of twelve. Discussing the plight of the manatees, he remarked that protection laws were so strict, a person could “lose everything” by harming or harassing a manatee. We nodded vigorously in support of this, though paused comically mid-bob when we realized his head was shaking.
“It’s a shame,” he sighed, referring to the laws protecting the seriously endangered animals. “But that’s just the way it is.”
With chipped paint and hand-drawn signs warning of the dangers of domesticating racoons, Weeki Wachee is worlds away from the polished theme parks of Orlando or the glittering lights of Miami. This is Florida kitsch at its finest, a throwback to an era when roadside attractions ruled the travelsphere, and rows of women in one-piece bathing suits would flag you off the interstate to enjoy their underwater novelty show.
I don’t think I could have loved Weeki Wachee more, and I think it would be a great disservice to Florida’s future should this roadside treasure be relegated to history.
There’s no doubt I’ll be back to Weeki Wachee. But next time? I’m scheming a way to swim on the other side of the glass.
What’s your favorite kitschy roadside attraction?