The Real-Life Underwater Mermaids of Weeki-Wachee, Florida

Real-life mermaids in Florida? This I’ve gotta see.

The Weeki-Wachee mermaids harken back to an era of Florida well before the Mouse came along. Established in 1947 as a roadside attraction, the name comes from Seminole Indians, which means “Little Spring” or “Winding River”. The big “secret” of being a mermaid is plain enough to see as soon as the show starts:

Underwater breathing wands are connected to an air supply, and are usually carried in their hand or lodged in part of the set. You can credit Newt Perry for that – a stunt swimmer and former Navy guy that literally invented a new way to breathe underwater. Performers are underwater for entire scenes at a time, and the Fish Tails shows are demonstrations of eating and drinking underwater. This is far from easy, however (imagine breathing just from your mouth, not your nose), and making it look natural and graceful takes some serious talent.

This isn’t a completely artificial set, by the way. While some elements are artificial, the deep, clear spring and underwater cave system are natural – one reason Florida took over the springs as a state park in 2008.

The story at play during the two shows a day is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid (not the Disney version most people are familiar with, though there are plenty of similarities) – the drowning sailor that the mermaid rescued and some of the animal friends are similar…

Photographers, this is not the easiest place to get quality pictures thanks to the enormous beams holding this tank in place. Your best bet is a seat in the middle right next to the central stage. A telephoto lens would be ideal, and you won’t need to be in the front few rows to do so. You’ll want a higher ISO to compensate for the lack of light; I personally shoot Shutter Priority (Time Priority for the Canon folks) in situations like this.

And then there’s Ursula – it was around this time that I began to realize the pre-taped audio was also being piped into the water, because the mermaids were lip-synching surprisingly well! No spoiler alerts needed here, as you probably know the story – a small stage plays a key role in a final scene where our heroine gets her legs and she dances – on land! As the show ends and the crowd begins to file out, pay attention to what happens above the tank (no spoilers here!).

OK, so the mermaid show is the main attraction here, especially in the low / winter season. Weeki Wachee has plenty more going on here – most notably, there’s a chance to get your picture with a mermaid. This is probably more exciting for the kids, but to each their own…

Even before it became an official state park, plenty of animals were part of the park’s attractions. While the selection of animals handled here is only a handful during one of their shows, it’s a reminder of the area’s animal life. Also around is a little trail and some chances to take pictures by the water.

These peacocks are loose and seen near the entrance to the park.

It’s clear the park’s heyday is decades in the past, and bigger or flashier attractions have taken a more prominent role in Florida’s tourism. Bigger isn’t necessarily better, of course, and throwback attractions like Weeki Wachee are great for generations to enjoy together (especially with aspects that might be unchanged since mom came here as a kid!). During the high / summer season, your swimsuit is a must – rides and water-based stuff aren’t just for the mermaids!

Details and directions

Admission is $13, and mermaid shows in the 400-seat theater start at 11am and 3pm daily. (Fish Tails, a show demonstrating the performer’s underwater abilities and some behind-the-scenes looks, starts at 1:30pm daily.) You’ll want to arrive at the park at least 15 minutes before the show starts to use the bathroom and get into the seating area. Double-check the current schedule at http://www.weekiwachee.com/ to avoid disappointment.

Weeki Wachee is about an hour north of Tampa and two hours west of Orlando – use “Weeki Wachee Springs” as the name in your favorite mapping website, or set a course for 6131 Commercial Way
Spring Hill, FL 34606 as you like.

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