Never copied in the state, Weeki Wachee and its mermaids have been a unique Florida attraction for over 70 years.
Weeki Wachee is located at the pool created by a set of springs that flow out of the Florida aquifer only a few miles from the Gulf Coast. The springs are one of Florida’s largest by volume, with a daily outflow of 104 million gallons (394 million liters). That’s 72 thousand gallons (273 thousand l.) a minute – the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that the average US household uses 110 thousand gallons (416 thousand l.) of water in a year.
The name Weeki Wachee comes from the Muskogee language – wekiwa chee for “spring” and “little”, thus our Florida mermaids swim in the Little Spring.
The story of Weeki Wachee and Florida’s mermaids begins with Newton Perry (1908-1987). Perry is one of the more important pioneers in Florida tourism history. Better known by the rather appropriate name “Newt”, the former US Navy frogman began developing the property in 1946. Located on a fairly out-of-the-way road – US Route 19 – Perry felt that the road would grow to be one of the busier highways in the state because it guided northern tourists to Tampa, St. Petersburg and Sarasota. It did. Perry would also become involved in the Florida Attractions Association as it started.
In the 1910s, Perry began swimming at Silver Springs while his family lived in Ocala. He would offer swimming lessons to locals and became the Ocala High School swim coach at the age of 16. He attended the University of Florida (UF), and was on the swim and dive teams while he earned his bachelor’s degree. He would later earn a master’s degree from UF, as well.
In the early years of Florida tourism, Silver Springs was mostly known for its glass bottom boat tours, which had been operating since the late 1800s. In the 1920s and 1930s, Perry and others would put on swimming performances, both on the surface and below it, to help attract visitors. He also ended up being a model for many photographers and images of him at Silver Springs were published in many magazines.
It the late 1930s, he worked as a consultant for Hollywood movie studios who were working on projects which included water. When World War II arrived, he joined the US Navy and taught frogmen – the military’s divers.
At the end of the war, he returned to Florida, purchased the property around Weeki Wachee springs and began to develop the new attraction. Reportedly, the head water pool contained abandoned cars, appliances and other trash. Perry had to remove all of that to be able to realize his dream of creating an underwater theater.
Perry’s next task was to figure out how swimmers could stay underwater to perform without having to wear the scuba breathing gear becoming popular with divers. He developed a system that started with an air compressor on the surface that would provide a continuous flow of air coming out of flexible tubes positioned 10 to 20 feet deep. Performers would either hold one of the tubes or swim to a nearby one when they needed a breath. The effect wound up being better than expected, as the steady stream of bubbles coming out of the tubes added to the show. The now-iconic streams of bubbles can be seen in many promotional photos and postcards.
Perry’s first theater, cut into the side of the limestone that borders the spring, seated 18 visitors. Soon he had built a larger one for 50 people. By the early 1960s, a new theater (which is also the current one) was built for upwards of 400 people.
Once Perry and his team figured out the logistics and taught the mermaids to breathe and perform underwater, Weeki Wachee opened to the public in October 1947. Performances in the early days included drinking soda from bottles and eating food. While it took some time to become successful, by the mid-1950s it was one of the most popular attractions in Florida, though Perry wasn’t there to see it. He left in 1950 to start a similar attraction in Texas, but after a few years, came back to Ocala to start a swimming school.
In 1959, the park entered a new phase when it was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), one of the three US national TV production companies. It was ABC who built the third and current theater and promoted the attraction on TV. This was the era of celebrity endorsements, as can be seen in the brochures of the time.
The mermaid shows also changed. Once, where beautiful women in one-piece bathing suits performed ballet-like choreography and did simple but fun-to-watch tasks, ABC created short underwater plays based on classic stories such as Alice in Wonderland, the Wizard of Oz and Peter Pan, as well as shows based on pirates and other sea themes. The performances included music, props and costumes.
The beautiful mermaids remained, however. In the 1950s and 1960s, Weeki Wachee mermaids would wear officially sponsored swimsuits, first by Alix of Miami, one of Florida’s premier fashion houses, and then later by Catalina, a swimsuit designer still in business today.
As the popularity of the mermaid shows grew, additional activities were added, including gardens, animal encounters, boat rides along the river, gift shops and restaurants. In 1982, a new attraction was created in connection with Weeki Wachee. Called Buccaneer Bay, it was built on the opposite side of the pool from the attraction and was (and is) comprised of water slides, picnic areas and sandy beaches.
In 2007, divers were able to explore the cave system at the springs as the speed of water discharge dropped temporarily. The divers explored the complicated underwater maze, eventually being able to go over 6,700 feet (2042 m.) from the entrance and into the caves in more than one passage. They were able to mark a maximum depth of 407 feet (124 m.) with an average depth of 285 feet (87 m.). This makes Weeki Wachee the deepest known naturally-formed spring in the US.
As of 2008, Weeki Wachee became the latest private attraction to become a state park. The park and the 12,000 acre (4,856 hectare) Weeki Wachee Preserve make up the majority of the property around the springs and river.
Today, much of the glamour of the place is gone, but the beautiful young ladies (and a few men) are still swimming for the public. Doing balletic and acrobatic moves in the water, they breathe from the same sort of air hoses invented decades ago. It can feel dated when visitors enter the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theater, but once the music starts and the curtain opens, all enjoy the quiet grace of the show. For all these years, considering the large number of copycat attractions in the state, it’s remarkable that no other Florida attraction seriously tried to copy Weeki Wachee’s idea of mermaid shows.