Weeki Wachee Springs State Park History
Welcome to Weeki Wachee Springs!
If you thought mermaids were just the lively imaginings of lonely sailors, think again -- and come to Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Live Mermaids, on the Gulf Coast of Florida.
Located about an hour north of Tampa at the crossroads of U.S. 19 and State Road 50, Weeki Wachee is more than just a mark on a road map. Weeki Wachee is an enchanted spring -- the only one of its kind in the world -- and one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions. Since 1947, the fun, family-oriented park has lured visitors with beautiful mermaids who swim in the cool, clear spring waters. Weeki Wachee Springs is a magical entrance into a mysterious blue underwater world of mermaids, manatees, turtles and bubbles. Sitting in the Mermaid Theater, visitors feel like they are inside the flowing spring, and are transported back to simpler times, before super theme parks and super highways appeared. So come to Weeki Wachee Springs and see a splendid side of Florida lore, where dreams really do come true.
The History of Weeki Wachee Springs
The Seminole Indians named the spring "Weeki Wachee," which means "little spring" or "winding river." The spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found. (Are you sure?) Each day, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh 72-degree water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns. Deep in the spring, the surge of the current is so strong that it can knock a scuba diver’s mask off. The basin of the spring is 100 feet wide with limestone sides and there, where the mermaids swim, 16 to 20 feet below the surface, the current runs a strong five miles per hour. It's quite a feat for a mermaid to stay in one place in such a current.
The Weeki Wachee River winds its way 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy man who trained SEALS to swim underwater in World War II, scouted out Weeki Wachee as a good site for a new business. At the time, U.S. Highway 19 was a small two-lane road. All the other roads were dirt; there were no gas stations, no groceries and no movie theaters. More alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans.
The spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars. The junk was cleared out and Perry experimented with underwater breathing hoses and invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose supplying oxygen from an air compressor, rather than from a tank strapped onto the back. With the air hose, humans could give the appearance of thriving twenty feet underwater with no breathing apparatus.
An 18-seat theater was built into the limestone, submerged six feet below the surface of the spring, so viewers could look right into the natural beauty of the ancient spring.
Perry scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time. He taught them to drink Grapette, a non-carbonated beverage no longer made, eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets. He put a sign out on U.S. 19: WEEKI WACHEE.
The first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater opened on October 13, 1947 -- the same day that Kukla, Fran and Ollie first aired on that newfangled invention called television, and one day before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The mermaids performed synchronized ballet moves underwater while breathing through the air hoses hidden in the scenery.
In those days, cars were few. When the girls heard a car coming, they ran to the road in their bathing suits to beckon drivers into the parking lot, just like sirens of ancient lore lured sailors to their sides. Then they jumped into the spring to perform.
In the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation’s most popular tourist stops. The attraction received worldwide acclaim. Movies were filmed at the spring, like "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid." Sights at the park included the mermaid shows, orchid gardens, jungle cruises, and Indian encampment and a new beach. The mermaids took etiquette and ballet lessons.
Weeki Wachee's heyday began in 1959, when the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) and was heavily promoted. ABC built the current theater, which seats 500 and is embedded in the side of the spring, 16 feet below the surface. ABC also developed themes for the underwater shows, with elaborate props, lifts, music and story lines such as Underwater Circus, the Mermaids and the Pirates and Underwater Follies. The mermaids performed Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White and Peter Pan.
In the 1960s, girls came from as far away as Tokyo to try out for the privilege of becoming a mermaid. The glamorous mermaids performed eight shows a day to sold out crowds -- as many as half a million people a year came to see the Weeki Wachee mermaids. Weeki Wachee Springs employed 35 mermaids, who took turns swimming in the shows and captivating the crowds by playing football and having picnics underwater. Some of the mermaids lived in the mermaid cottages behind the attraction. The mermaids wore one-piece suits and were treated like royalty wherever they went in Florida. All sorts of people stopped to see the mermaids, even Elvis. Don Knotts, Esther Williams and Arthur Godfry also visited to Weeki Wachee.
The City of Weeki Wachee incorporated in 1966, putting the tiny city of Weeki Wachee on maps and state road signs.
In 1982, Buccaneer Bay opened with water slides and a white sand beach.
In 1997, the popular Former Mermaid shows began, bringing former mermaids back to Weeki Wachee Springs to swim in the Mermaids of Yesteryear shows, which play to standing room only crowds. The former mermaids may have moved on in life, but the enchantment of the Weeki Wachee Spring calls them back time and again, like a dream that can’t be forgotten.
The former mermaids’ motto is: Once a mermaid, always a mermaid. Being a mermaid is a magical job. As the mermaids sing in The Little Mermaid show:
We’re not like other women,
We don’t have to clean an oven
And we never will grow old,
We’ve got the world by the tail!
Today, the tiny city of Weeki Wachee is one of the nation's smallest cities, with a population of nine, including the mayor of Weeki Wachee who, you guessed it, is a former mermaid. Who better to bring the dream back to life? Fresh coats of paint adorn the walls of the Mermaid Villa, the gift shop is stocked with fanciful and functional mermaid souvenirs, and the mermaid theater is being restored to its former glory. Recently, carpeting on the walls was pulled back to reveal original ceramic tiles in Florida colors: teal, pink and aqua.
Visitors can swim at Buccaneer Bay, see the Misunderstood Creatures animal show, or take a riverboat ride down the Weeki Wachee River and into Old Florida. A family of peacocks roams the grounds. Turtles, fish, manatees, otters and even an occasional alligator swim in the spring with the mermaids, amusing both children and adults. Visitors can pose with mermaids, and even swim in the spring with the new Sea Diver program. Children can attend the summer Mermaid Camp and fulfill their dreams of becoming a little mermaid or a merman.
Weeki Wachee Springs -- The City of Live Mermaids -- is more than just mermaids; it's a truly original piece of Florida's rich heritage.
Weeki Wachee Springs became a state park on November 8, 2008.