Weeki Wachee Springs is one of Florida’s oldest and most unique roadside attractions. It’s located about an hour north of Tampa at the crossroads of U.S. 19 and State Road 50. For nearly 60 years, this 430-acre theme park has attracted visitors who come to watch beautiful women dressed as mermaids with fins about their legs swim in the cool, clear spring waters.
Each day, more than 170 million gallons of clear, fresh 72-degree water bubbles up out of the subterranean caverns at Weeki Wachee. The basin of the spring is 100 feet wide with limestone sides, and it is there, where the mermaids swim, some 16 to 20 feet below the surface. The current runs a strong five miles per hour, so it’s quite a feat for the mermaids to stay in one place in such a current. Besides the Mermaid Shows, there were beautiful gardens, jungle cruises and a beach. Peacocks roam in the beautiful grounds at Weeki Wachee Springs and visitors can pose with the mermaids, take a riverboat ride down the Weeki Wachee River, or even go swimming in the springs.
The attraction was created in 1947 by an ex-Navy frogman named Newton Perry, who based the show on underwater air hose breathing techniques which he experimented at Weeki Wachee. He built an 18-seat theatre into the limestone at the edge of a spring and recruited pretty young girls to swim underwater. He taught them to smile and breathe with his new air hose — while underwater. Without masks, mermaids learn to take gulps of air from the hose, balancing the pressure on their ears and sinuses while being buffeted by a 12-mile-an-hour (19-kilometer-an-hour) current. They also learned to drink beverages and eat underwater.
There was no marketing at the time and traffic was sparse, so when the girls heard a car coming, they would run outside in their bathing suits and lure travelers inside for a performance. As the performances became more sophisticated, Weeki Wachee’s fame grew and so did the crowds. By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops. At its height, during the 1960s, the mermaids performed ten shows a day.
During its heydays, Weeki Wachee Springs attracted celebrities including Elvis Presley, Arthur Godfrey, and Kevin Smith. But then novelty wore off, and it no longer attracted headlines, investors, or crowds. Many people at Weeki Wachee werr worried that the park will soon shut down, a victim of changing times and local politics.
Fortunately, the government converted Weeki Wachee Springs to a Florida State Park in 2008. The state plans is to preserve and continue to stage the mermaid show for the public, with a permanent staff of around 15 mermaids and five mermen.