“Weeki Wachee,” the Seminole words for “little spring” or “winding river,” roll off the tongue. The alliterative name now graces an unincorporated community, its verdant state park as well as that park’s iconic attraction – an iconic underwater mermaid show.
The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee have been performing in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, on Florida’s west central coast since 1949.
Currently, the underwater theater employs 24 mermaids who “perform in pure aquamarine water that flows from a first-magnitude spring,” said Alexandra Kuchta, press secretary for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She referred to the mermaid show as “perhaps the best-known symbol of the yesteryear of Florida tourism.”
Each show has a cast of 10, and the theater can accommodate up to 300 audience members, Kuchta said, observing that “while the mermaids make it look easy, their responsibilities are rigorous and challenging. Performers must maintain their buoyancy, hit their cues on time, and look completely flawless to their audience – all while swimming in brisk, 72-degree water against a current that sometimes pulls at 5 miles per hour.”
Perhaps the most popular show in the mermaid repertoire, and seemingly tailor-made for this venue, is Hans Christian Anderson’s classic “The Little Mermaid,” which features not only “a variety” of mermaids, but also a prince!
Also on view is the mermaids’ newest show, “Wonders of Weeki,” which explores the park’s colorful history. Holiday shows boast original scripts, and unique music and costumes.
All shows have individual, group and synchronized underwater acrobatics, Kuchta said. And when “not twisting, twirling, or flipping in the spring, the mermaids also perform ‘everyday’ tasks, such as eating or drinking.”
While the performers often are Floridians, the park “attracts would-be mermaids from all over the country,” Kuchta said. Recent additions have hailed from New York and Wisconsin.
To become a Weeki Wachee performer, applicants must be at least 18 years old; swim a 400-yard freestyle or breaststroke in less than 16 minutes; and undergo auditions that include underwater ballet maneuvers and feet-first dives, as well as a buoyancy assessment.
“Once all medical and physical standards are met, performers also receive SCUBA training,” Kuchta noted.
Even so, performers are not live-show ready for as long as a year afterwards. The “senior mermaids, some of whom have been with the park for more than 15 years,” train the newcomers, Kuchta said.
The mermaid shows began on Oct. 13, 1947, shortly after Newton Perry came to Weeki Wachee. “Back then, U.S. Route 19 was a small, two-lane highway surrounded by dirt roads,” Kuchta said. After clearing the springs ”of rusted, old refrigerators and abandoned cars,” Perry, a U.S. Navy diver, began experimenting with underwater breathing hoses, which led him to invent the air hoses “that opened the door to underwater performances,” Kuchta said.
American Broadcasting Company took over in 1959, building the underwater theater and promoting its new attraction. When Weeki Wachee became an incorporated city in 1966, it “officially put the live mermaids on the map,” Kuchta said. The area has since become an unincorporated community.
The state of Florida officially named the 538-acre property Weeki Wachee Springs State Park upon acquiring it on Nov. 1, 2008. The park, Kuchta said, “celebrates classic, quintessential Florida, while also preserving and sharing its bountiful natural resources … (including) the nation’s deepest freshwater cave system, as well as an abundance of protected wildlife.”
Other attractions at the park, open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, are Buccaneer Bay, a spring-fed waterpark with a sandy white beach, swimming area, and four waterslides; a River Boat Cruise; kayak and canoe rentals; and a native wildlife animal show.
The Mermaids of Weeki Wachee perform daily at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee, Florida. Seating is first-come, first-served. Shows are subject to cancellation based on cold temperatures and inclement weather. Tickets are $13 for adults; $8 for ages 6 to 12; and free for ages 5 and younger. Call 352-597-8484 for more information.
By Ellyn Wexler