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?
I am loving these underwater mermaid photos! You definitely captured the magic.
Thanks Miquel! The underwater shows were actually super frustrating to photograph, so I appreciate that! I wanted to be in those springs with my underwater cam.
Mermaids! This looks really cool. Now I want to watch Disney movies.
Ha, yes! I can’t believe we didn’t watch The Little Mermaid as a follow up, really.
I absolutely adorrrrrrrred reading this. I’m totally on board with the love for kitschy vintage feeling shows – I’m definitely looking this place up next time I hit the states! xx
Then you will not be disappointed, Lucy! This is now one of my favorite places in Florida 🙂
Ahh it looks so cool! i’d love to be able to do that… Unfortunately i haven’t quite mastered the art of opening my mouth underwater without inhaling a huge amount… But maybe one day haha x
They do say the mermaids take three to four months of training before they are ready to perform in shows… I’m sure you’d get the hang of it eventually 😉
Oh man, I am IN! Someone scrolling through the pages of our blog may think “Jenny, there are too many photos of you with mermaid tails photoshopped on in your posts.” Are there really ever too many pictures of mermaids in the world though??
So obviously I had to go look at your blog and try to find a mermaid tail photoshopped photo! Couldn’t find one, so actually I think the answer is you need MORE 🙂
You are lovely. This post not only shows a real mermaid riding a dolphin, but also the rare sight of a mermaid digital nomad getting some work done on the beach.
HAHA. LOVE IT. You really do need to make your way to Weeki Wachee 🙂
WHATTTT!! WHAT. This is the greatest thing ever. That is all.
I knew you’d appreciate, Rika. Magic.
I have never heard of Weeki Wachee and the mermaids before but it sounds like a fun day out. Hopefully they will keep getting enough people to visit so it can stay open
Here’s hoping! I know I’ll be back next time I’m in Tampa 🙂 I want to rent a SUP and paddleboard around those springs!
I can TOTALLY see you doing this! I think next time you make it back to Weeki Wachee you’ll be a part of the show 😉
It sounded like the waters were a LITTLE colder than I am used to, but I guess I could suck it up in the name of mermaiding 🙂
This is such a great write up. I am forwarding it to all my friends here in Florida. The pictures are so old Florida in part. Just great photos. We used to have to stop in that area decades ago to wait for cows to cross us 19. My favorite comment was the peacocks. So abundant. And the plastic machine made mermaid. Ask Karen about the road side Monkey or gorilla farm.
It was such a fun day! Oh boy, can’t wait to hear these new road side stories next time I see you 🙂
Ha, as I was reading this I was thinking to myself I wonder how badly she wanted to be one of those mermaids. So your last sentence made me chuckle. You should ask to make an appearance in the show next time! Just do it 😉
I really think I might have to. When they were showing the behind-the-scenes footage of the staging area and chutes into the springs I was like LEMME IN THERE.
Oh my goodness. I live an hour from Tampa and have never heard of this! Now I want to drag my boyfriend down to see the mermaids. $13 for a day full of silly Florida fun? It’s hard to beat that price around here. Thanks for sharing. 🙂
I know! I think that’s the best part! And if the little water park were open, the value would be even more amazing — I just can’t get over what a deal it is.
I’m super excited you’re getting into posts about my home area! I remember going to Weeki Wachee when I was little. Haven’t been back since, but this post may change that. I highly suggest checking out some other springs next time you’re in Florida too. 🙂
I want to do a big kayak or SUP trip through one next time I’m back, Emily! Any suggestions?
Rainbow Springs and Ginnie Springs are wonderful, and I’ve heard great things about Devil’s Den (caters to divers!). Hope you get to check them out some day. 🙂
I feel like Florida is the only state that could pull this off! When I was little and growing up in Orlando, it was my dream to one day become one of these mermaids when I was older! My cousins and I used to practice swimming like a mermaid in my backyard pool, hahah.
Also, the American southwest has some fabulously kitschy roadside attractions. They make me so happy!!
That is adorable and I love that Weeki Wachee has instilled that dream in little girls all over Florida! It’s a noble one to have!
I can’t believe I never knew this existed before, but it looks like SO much fun! I will definitely have to check it out sometime when I’m down there. I can’t believe how cheap it is, either! It seems like a pretty quality place, and your photos are gorgeous. I’ll have to thank you, though, for getting Under the Sea stuck in my head for probably the rest of the day.
I’ll never apologize for getting any song on the Little Mermaid soundtrack stuck in ANYONE’S head 🙂 Weeki Wachee really is a gem. So pleased to share it here!
Wow this is awesome! I didn’t realize that you could do this in Orlando. I love mermaids, and would love to see this sometime! Nice alternative to the typical DisneyWorld adventure. 🙂
Actually, Holly, this is about two hours west of Orlando. But well worth a road trip!
Great photos, as always!
One of my absolute favorite finds while traveling for work was the Sip’N Dip in Great Falls, Montana — a BAR WITH MERMAIDS!! It was every bit as awesome as you’d expect.
WHAT! I just had to Google that. I think Montana just worked its way HIGH up on my bucket list.
So cool! I was just down in Crystal River and Ocala recently, and someone was talking about the Weeki Wachee mermaids when I was at Silver Springs in Ocala. I was bummed I hadn’t known about them sooner, otherwise I totally would have built a visit there into my trip!
Ah, I loved swimming with the manatees in Crystal River! My grandmother lived in Homosassa, so I spent a lot of time in that area growing up. What a little slice of bizarre Americana it is.
So excited to see them in Charleston [soon]!! I totally flipped when I realized that they were coming my way. If only my husband showed the same enthusiasm lol. I’ll be interested to see how they manage in a different aquarium scenery.
I didn’t know the Weeki Wachee girls went on tour! How cool! I would flip if they came to any city I was going to be in 🙂
Being a mermaid will suit . I scrolled and scrolled, where’s a picture of Alex in mermaid outfit? Ah, next time (bucketlist, photo opportunity 🙂
I’m sure it will happen one of these days — very sure 🙂
Ah, I wanna go see the mermaids! Sounds like such a fun day, it would definitely be a shame if they closed it down 🙁
I’ll definitely be back next time I’m in Florida! I want to SUP down the springs… and of course say hi to the mermaids while I’m there 🙂
Amazing photos Alex! Is that purse you have a camera bag for your SLR?! If so where did you get it?! I have still yet to find the perfect camera bag! 🙁
It’s actually just a travel purse my mom got me for Christmas! But it is a great size for my SLR along with my other essentials — I have quickly fallen in love and will definitely be including it in my next packing post. The brand is Baggallini and she got it at the AAA store — very glam 🙂
I visit the Tampa area twice a year and always wondered if Weeki Wachee was worth the drive… I see now it is! I’ll have to make a special trip here at the end of this month when I visit again 🙂 Beautiful photos!
Absolutely! I don’t know how it took me so long when I’ve been making almost annual trips to Tampa my entire life!
I knew it! I KNEW it! They exist! I thought anyone who claimed they didn’t is a meany! would love to see this one day! 🙂
With you, Tess 🙂 Magic and mermaids are real!
Huge fan of yours, completely inspiring 🙂 I was hoping to buy some of your week I wachee photos to frame on my wall. Is there any way to do this? If so, please let me know! Keep up the awesome posts!
Hey Ashley, you’re so sweet! I’d love to sell you some of my photos — shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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