Have you ever wanted to sell everything you own and just "take off?" Travel the country's back roads, paddle down a meandering stream, experience breath-taking mountain views, walk among 100-year old trees, and just marvel at America's beauty? That is the dream that my partner, Betsy, and I decided to make a reality. This blog describes our adventure. The food we eat, people we meet, sights we see, and the enjoyment we find in traveling.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Missing Mermaids

On our migration north thru Florida we were on the hunt for mermaids.  You may think that mermaids only exist in mythology, but that means you have never heard of Weeki Wachee.  There is not much to the town of Weeki Wachee, except for the famous mermaid show set along the beautiful clear river and springs.  Once I told Betsy that there was a mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, she said “we have to go!”
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park entrance.

We drove an hour south from our campsite, boarded the Spirit pup, paid our $13 admission and only then did we come to find out the mermaids were on a photo shoot and not performing that day.  How could this be?  Our one and only chance to see live mermaids and they are on a photo shoot!  Please tell me it was not the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition.  We looked at each other with long faces and then turned to brochure to see what else would occupy our time and how we could redeem our admission cost.  Turns out there was an animal encounters show that had just begun.  “Let’s go see that.”  Much to my dismay, it was the reptile show – not my thing, especially when the animal handler is wielding a 6-foot long serpent in front of the crowd!  Enough of that, we headed for the 30-minute boat tour on the Weeki Watchee River.  After our half an hour wait, the tour turned out to be very relaxing and informative.  The 30-passenger boat glided down the shallow, crystal clear water and we marveled at the clarity as we saw various fish swimming by.
Beautiful Weeki Wachee river.  
The name “Weeki Wachee,” comes from the Seminole Indians and means “little spring” or “winding river.”  Nearly 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 72-degree water bubbles up from subterranean caverns.  So how did mermaids come to swim in these waters?

A man by the name of Newton Perry was looking for a place to start a new business that would involve pretty girls breathing and swimming underwater just like mermaids.  Perry was a former U.S. Navy man who trained “Frogmen” to swim underwater in World War II.  When he came to Weeki Wachee he found a beautiful spring but it was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.  After cleaning out the junk, he experimented with underwater breathing hoses and invented a method of breathing oxygen through a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor (instead of from a tank strapped onto the back).  This new breathing technique gave the appearance of being able to survive underwater without a breathing apparatus.
The only mermaid we did get to see -
"Princess Wonderous."

Newton built an 18-seat theater six feet below the surface of the spring so spectators could look directly into the spring.   In order to attract visitors, Perry scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time.  The mermaids took etiquette and ballet lessons and soon Perry was ready to put a sign on the highway advertising the underwater show.  In those days, few cars travelled the highway so when the girls heard a car coming they ran to the road already clad in their bathing suits and beckoned unsuspecting drivers to the show. 

The first show was in October 1947 but by the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops.  The attraction received worldwide acclaim, attracting superstars like Elvis and Don Knotts and becoming the set for movies.  While the star attraction was the mermaids, the park also included orchid gardens, jungle cruises, and Indian encampment and a new beach.  Weeki Wachee’s real heyday began in 1959, when the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and was heavily promoted.  Under ABC’s ownership, the current 500-seat theater was built at a depth of 16 feet below the surface.   ABC also developed themes for the underwater shows with elaborate props, music, and story lines such as the Mermaids and the Pirates and Underwater Follies.
Mermaids in action.  (photos courtesy of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park)
Mermaid Stayce performing.
Mermaids Marcy and Cyndi posing underwater.
Mermaid Tara swimming gracefully.
In July is the 65th Mermaid Reunion.  Too bad we will have to miss that.
We had no idea there was so much history to Weeki Wachee and the famous mermaids.  While we didn't get to see the mermaids we were at least glad we got to go to Weeki Wachee to experience the place.  We suggest calling ahead to make sure the mermaids are swimming so you don’t miss out on the star attraction.  Bring you bathing suit because Buccaneer Bay is a water park on the grounds where you can take a dip in the springs.  That is if you don’t think 72-degree water is too cold.

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