The mermaids are singing again at Weeki Wachee Springs.
But for a while it looked as if a legal dispute would silence the fish-tailed beauties that Elvis Presley, and millions of other people, loved.
It’s one of the last surviving tourist gems of old Florida, the era of roadside attractions that were so much a part of the state’s lure before Disney and Universal and the like took over.
At heart, it’s an underwater theatre where the audience, behind a glass wall, watches comely young women, in colourful fishtails and bikini bras, as they perform choreographed dance sequences, lip-synching to a soundtrack, and breathing every couple of minutes through a tiny air hose.
It came into being in 1947 when Newton Perry, a retired U.S. Navy frogman, first came on the gigantic, crystal-clear spring. He noted that the town of Weeki Wachee was — and is — on Route 19, the main highway to the Gulf Coast resort areas like Tampa Bay and Fort Myers in the days before Interstate 75.
Peary knew that America was becoming mobile — make that auto-mobile — and he knew a lot of them would stop here if he gave them something to look at.
So he hired swimmers, young, shapely and female, and taught them how to stay underwater by breathing through the air hose. They were originally in bathing suits, but later they “grew” shimmering fishtails.
Attendance was topping a million a year. Elvis, filming Follow That Dream up the road in Yankeetown in 1962, dropped in again and again.
“The mermaids who were here then tell me how polite and charming he was,” says John Athanason, the Springs’ publicity director.
By the start of the 21st century, however, the big theme parks had killed lots of smaller attractions. And then a state agency called the Water Management District, which owns the spring and surrounding land, but not the business, did a survey and came up with a list of improvements that were needed.
Otherwise, the lease wouldn’t be renewed. Closure seemed imminent.
“We didn’t want that to happen here. After all, this is the world’s only ‘city of mermaids,'” says Athanason.
A complicated legal battle followed, with the owners claiming the state wanted to close the place down. Unable to find a buyer, the business was donated to the City of Weeki Wachee, population nine. (That’s right, nine.)
And, spearheaded by Mayor Robyn Anderson, herself a former mermaid, and Athanason, a publicity campaign, Save Our Tails, was launched.
It got international publicity and $250,000 was raised. Big-box stores and contractors donated materials and workers got going to bring Weeki Wachee Springs back up to par. When that happened, Florida State Parks took it over, guaranteeing its future.
“In 2003 we were operating in the red. Now we’re making a profit,” says Athanason. “We’re seeing 250,000 people a year, and growing.”
As well as the 400-seat theatre, Weeki Wachee Springs includes the Buccaneer Bay water park, concession stands, boat rides and kayak rentals.
For more information on Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, visit its website at weekiwachee.com.
For information on travel in Florida visit the Florida Tourism Industry Marketing Corporation website at www.visitflorida.com.