Weeki Wachee Springs has something for the man who has everything: mermaids. Opened as a privately owned roadside attraction in 1947, the mermaids continue to draw tourists, locals, and men whose significant others are not threatened by a group of pretty young women wriggling underwater with their lower halves zipped into the tail end of a fish.
Mr. B. easily selected Weeki Wachee from a bucket list that included the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine, Gatorland in Kissimmee, and a week at the Hotel Georges V in Paris. He pointed out that the water from the Fountain of Youth came from a tap, that we could see all the alligators we wanted on the La Chua Trail, and that Paris was as overbaked as a souffle aux epinards.
Like Homosassa Springs to the north, Weeki Wachee is now a Florida State Park. Both attractions are significant destinations for roadside scholars, since they exist in their nearly original form. In the case of Weeki Wachee, only the cast of mermaids has changed; the swimmers still use the air-hose system developed by ex-Navy frogman and original park owner Newton Perry.
We paid our admission fee and were immediately confounded by the park’s map. Weeki Wachee is tiny for those of us who are used to milling about in vast tracts of woodland. We walked past the mermaid theatre to a centrally located restroom where we consulted the map for the location of the Wilderness River Cruise, only to find out that we had more or less just seen the whole park. Although the park encompasses 538 acres, the pedestrian public enjoys just that paved fraction that loops to the boat dock and back to the entrance. Those who rent canoes or kayaks can see more of the river, or you can pay an additional entrance fee to the adjacent Buccaneer Bay and swim in the springs.
We arrived at one and learned that the closing time was at four Mr. B. hustled us along to the mermaid theatre, where he breathed a sigh of relief upon realizing that if I hurried up in the ladies’ room we would get to see both mermaid shows and also take the river cruise. At present, the mermaids perform in “Fish Tales” and in “The Little Mermaid,” the latter carefully skirting Disney’s legal department by referencing the original Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and not the Ariel cartoon character.
You watch the mermaids from a partially submerged amphitheatre that made me feel slightly claustrophobic. I quickly sat down on a bench in the back row, and just as quickly Mr. B. announced that he wanted to sit right up front. My early training as the daughter of a General mandates that I must sit near an exit and Mr. B.’s early training as a man dictates that he must sit wherever he can get the best view of a wriggling tush. He moved to the first row and I courageously moved to the row behind him. This vantage point allowed us both to swivel our necks to the side to watch a video filmed by the English rock band Supergrass. This video centered on a blonde mermaid named Carli, who was shown feeding her horse and then performing at the springs. In anticipation of the curtain rising, Mr. B. got his camera ready, while I failed to inform him that between performances, the mermaids strip off their tails and take a group shower. Naked.
The curtain went up on “Fish Tales,” a performance that is part historical, part educational, and part patriotic. The first thing I noticed was the heavy makeup the mermaids wore, including (on one girl) severely drawn black eyebrows. The second thing I noticed was that there must be some rule about hair color where Nature does not know best; two were bright bleached blondes and the hair of another was the color of bootblack. The fourth had some variation of ash that didn’t read as well as the others. The girls twisted their torsos while mouthing words to a song that I immediately forgot. Mr. B. clicked away after making some adjustments to his camera. I did, too, after making some adjustments to my stomach, which I sucked in.
Halfway through the performance, I correctly guessed that Mr. B. would have a renewed interest in my buying a tiny bikini. The mermaid makeup I figured I could recreate at home using the cosmetics on hand, so there would be no additional expense other than the three triangles of cloth with a Jungle Jane print and a piece or two of string in between.
The finale of “Fish Tales” was stupendous. Two mermaids rose from the depth holding a large American flag between them while Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” boomed from the speakers. This nearly brought a tear to my eye when I thought that I had almost selected the gluttonous week in Paris over this display of national pride. Shame on me! I was so moved that I almost forgot an earlier announcement that if you discarded your trash in the amphitheatre, the mermaids had to clean it up. Shame on you!
After the show, we parked our own tails on the boat that would take us a short distance down the river. A low water level meant that the captain (“U. S. Coast Guard certified!”) had to thread the boat through the deepest channel, where he made an announcement that in the event of the boat’s sinking we could don our life vests, step off boat, and walk in two feet of water to the bank.
There was less excitement on the cruise, although a shout from an excitable woman in red shorts broke through the thick curtain of air: “Look! There’s a deer!”
The captain then asked where everyone was from. “Ohio.”
We returned to see “The Little Mermaid,” which featured a male swimmer who had obvious ballet chops. It was in the extension of his feet and the muscles of his calves. “The Little Mermaid” wasn’t nearly so thrilling as “Fish Tales” had been, because after seeing the first show we had become jaded. Now, we were accustomed to the torso-twist, the wriggling, and the flapping. “The Little Mermaid” recycled the tricks of “Fish Tales” into its fairy-tale narrative. A Sea Witch livened things up a bit, costume-wise.
Ever the astute theatrical producer, Mr. B. noted that the Little Mermaid was a few fish-years too old for the part.
After the show was over, we joined a group of people on a picnic deck where we watched the Prince haul himself out of the water. Everyone applauded. The Prince executed a princely wave and then disappeared up a ramp. We took a couple of pictures of the back of the amphitheatre and then, both of us satisfied for different reasons, we followed the group out to the parking lot, got in our car, and headed to Wal-Mart.
Weeki Wachee Springs: ****
If you visit: We covered the whole park in just under three hours, including both mermaid shows and the river cruise. We did not see the animal show whose scheduling conflicted with the cruise. These three things comprise the attractions at Weeki Wachee. A sign warned of a long wait for the cruise, and, given the small number of things to do at the park, it made me wonder just how long people would stand in line for a 20-minute drift down the river. This and other mysteries of human nature are unsolvable.
A statue at the entrance had an Olympian charm.
Buccaneer Bay, which was closed on the day we visited. All too easy to imagine jammed with the summer throng.
I enjoyed the performance of the turtles as much as I did the performance of the mermaids. Here and there a mermaid had to brush a turtle away from her face.
The linked circle, a major trick in “Fish Tales.”
The rousing finale of “Fish Tales.” Huge applause followed.
A loud screech alerted us to this peacock, who blocked the sidewalk near the boat dock. The bird was obviously used to having his picture taken. He turned slowly in a full 360 and then repeated the maneuver. A small crowd stopped to admire his plumage and then was afraid to walk by him. Not me. I’ve been spit at by a camel and had a turd thrown at me by a monkey, so a screeching peacock was hardly a deterrent.
Around the corner, a less ego-driven bird posed atop a fence.
I liked the Weeki Wachee River so well that I might make my first attempt at kayaking on its shallow waters. Water level was down a few feet and the river isn’t always this clear.