Several years ago, I read an article about Weeki Wachee Springs, which is part 1940s roadside attraction, part state park. And I knew I had to go. The attraction? Mermaids.
In 1947, this guy bought a natural spring and built an underwater theater with a massive glass wall–like a huge aquarium. He hired local women to learn to swim as mermaids. And the shows have been going on ever since.
They perform underwater and do things like eating, drinking, a tremendous deep dive (I forget the exact number, but I think they go down 150 feet. With no masks or anything), and synchronized swimming moves. And yes, they wear tails.
We took a break from Disney to drive a couple of hours to see these mermaids, and it was well worth it. It was, in so many ways, the opposite of Disney. Not polished, not crowded, not famous, not orderly. In the whole place, there were perhaps a hundred other people; it wasn’t a ghost town, but it felt like it after being in the crowds at Disney. Part of me would love to see what Disney would do with a show like this, but mostly I’m thrilled that it’s untouched by that level of shine.
We watched one show that was about how they do it (we only caught the end of that, but it was interesting–this is where we saw the deep dive and watched a person go without air for nearly 3 minutes!). And then we came back for the “Little Mermaid” show, which was lovely…and went exactly as close to the Disney movie as they possibly could without being sued.
My images don’t come close to doing it justice. The New York Times did this video on them, which is much better:
They were amazing–and as I understand it, they’re mostly local women who have a family tradition of being mermaids or just got interested in learning it. Watching them, I kept forgetting that they were underwater. They made it look completely effortless. It was like looking in on another planet.
Because it’s a natural spring, part of a river, I’ve heard that sometimes manatees swim through during the mermaid show. I cannot begin to describe how hard I was hoping that would happen, but sadly, it didn’t. That was the only thing that was less than amazing about our whole day there, though. Probably for the best. I might have died of excitement.
One thing that was weird and delightful about the place was that it was acquired by the state parks system some time ago, and so it’s a strange juxtaposition of everything you’d expect from a state park, like a ranger show with live specimens and lots of talk about habitat preservation, standard-issue state parks playgrounds, picnic tables, and bathrooms, and literal rangers in uniform, with this very campy aesthetic.
It was bizarre and completely perfect. We swam, we snacked, we played, and… we watched a show with, let me say it again, LIVE MERMAIDS.
I had an unequivocally amazing time.