Imagine a place
Serene, tranquil, and peaceful
Full of weightlessness
A world as old as time, and as new as a dream.
Kiddieland is based out of the Philly area, so locals may have seen some billboards popping up in our area from Adventure Aquarium promising MERMAIDS this November. If you’re not already a fan of kitschy roadside attractions, you may not be aware of the rich history of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids (who will be gracing the aquarium with their first northeast tour date their 67 year history!) The mermaids hail from Weeki Wachee Springs in central FL, a national park /town that has affectionately been dubbed “Mermaid City” and their kitschy show has to be seen to be believed. In fact, I’m sure you’ve never seen anything else like it in your life.
The mermaids have been swimming since 1947 when Newton Perry, a former Navy Seal saw a business opportunity and opened an underwater theater 6 feet into the limestone of the spring. After some experimentation, he invented a forced air breathing tube that could be dropped into the water allowing the mermaids to “breathe” underwater without the use of SCUBA equipment or air tanks. Now all he needed were some pretty girls! He scouted and trained girls to swim, breathe, smile, and even eat in this new underwater ballet. This was no easy feat considering the currents run at over 5 miles per hour. It takes a very athletic mermaid to stay perfectly in place in a 5 mile current, but they do it with grace and beauty. The girls now go through a full year of training and are required to pass their “mermaid test” to become a mermaid! Since cars were sparse in the 1940s, the sirens were said to have lured roadside travelers to the attraction by running to the highway in their bathing suits! Needless to say, cars started stopping. Interest in the attraction grew greatly in the 1950s and 1960s and the area was eventually purchased by ABC who built the current theater-16 feet below the surface. Plenty of Movies and TV shows have been filmed there since, and the show was a worldwide sensation, even bringing in celebrities like Elvis Presley to see the mermaids in action. The full history is long and worth your time. You can check out more on the Weeki Wachee website.
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!
-Lyrics from the Weeki Wachee Little Mermaid show
If it all sounds too good to be true, think again. The mermaids still swim today. Twice daily, live mermaids with bright tails and glittery tops dive into the deepest natural spring on earth to put on shows for eager families, usually with children (mostly little girls) in tow. I was lucky enough to catch them in June for both of their daily shows.
The day that I visited they put on “The Little Mermaid” (adapted from the Hans Christian Anderson story) and “Fish Tales” featuring segments from some of the best loved shows over the decades. Past shows have included Snow White, Alice in Waterland, Underwater Follies, We got to see the famous “eating and drinking” underwater act, which they still do in the Fish Tales show. The elaborate 1960s props and costumes speak to the popularity of the attraction at that time.
I came across this treasure of a 1964 Super 8mm film of Alice in Waterland that still has my mind spinning.
You can see photos and video, but nothing compares to seeing these talented, strong, yet graceful mermaids (and mermen!) swim up to the glass in person. It is truly breathtaking and I’m not surprised to see that the show still brings in a crowd. Sure, at times the shows feels dated, but isn’t that what we’re here for? The music, the props, and the costumes are an amazing time capsule to a simpler time when a good idea and a little bit of money could lead to an empire worthy of network television and celebrity attention. This is the legacy of an entrepreneurial diver with a dream to make people believe in mermaids, and almost 70 years later, the gimmick still works. Every little girl in that place left with the dream of becoming a mermaid.
The kitschiest kookiest part of the modern show can be seen here with the mermaids performing their brassy theme song:
In other areas of the Weeki Wachee National Park, you can take a Riverboat Cruise, See the Wilderness show or visit the water park at Buccaneer Bay. You also won’t want to miss a stop by the Mold-A-Rama machines (A beloved retro treat for roadside kitsch fans like myself!) Unfortunately, one of the Mold-A-Rama machines was down when I visited, so if anyone makes it back, and can make me the green mermaid on the seahorse, I will love you forever! The grounds are full of lush Florida greenery, and beautiful Grecian inspired mermaid statues, and at times it is very serene. If it weren’t for the squawking of the peacocks, I imagine that this might be the kind of place I could visit often to be alone with my thoughts, sort of like that muffled perception you have of the world when you are submerged in water, and you can’t hear anything above the surface.
I encourage you to visit for yourself and see the mermaids swim live. The day filled me with a sense of deep history. You could feel it in the air, the memories of almost 7 decades in the bubbles of the deep water-days spent with family, nostalgia for a simpler time, and enchanted magic under the water. If you don’t believe in mermaids now, once you step inside, you can’t deny it. Mermaids are real.