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How Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will celebrate 75 years and its famed mermaids

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State Archives of Florida
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Florida was once known for its roadside attractions such as Six-Gun Territory in Ocala, which featured shootouts at high noon on its dusty main drag. Winter Haven also had Cypress Gardens, known for water-ski shows and young women dressed in floral-colored southern belle costumes.

  A mermaid performs at Weeki Wachee in this postcard from 1969.
State Archives of Florida
/
Courtesy
A mermaid performs at Weeki Wachee in this postcard from 1969.

Many of them went by the wayside after Walt Disney World opened in the Orlando area in 1972. But this weekend, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Hernando County will celebrate 75 years.

The park draws hundreds of thousands of tourists each year for kayaking, to see manatees, and, of course, the live mermaid shows.

“The park itself that the underwater theater that visitors when they go see the mermaid shows live is the only theater of its kind in the entire world," said John Athanason, a tourism marketing specialist for Florida’s Adventure Coast. "It's a 400-seat theater that was submerged. So the mermaids do not perform in a tank or an aquarium. They're actually performing in a first-magnitude spring. And all the visitors able to see the magic they perform via this underwater theater.”

Thursday at 10 a.m., the park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called "Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail."

The original anniversary observance was to be held on Oct. 13, 2022, but it was pushed back after Hurricane Ian ravaged the southwest Gulf Coast near the end of September.

Athanason said the park will bring together mermaids from over the decades, including 92-year-old Diane Wyatt McDonald, one of Weeki Wachee’s first “Aquabelles.”

McDonald was the co-creator of a certain pose that is depicted in "Adagio," one of the statues that can be seen in front of the park.

And there’s “legendary siren” Vicki Smith, now in her 80s and who, Athanason said, swam for Elvis Presley when he visited the park in 1961.

Athanason said Weeki Wachee Springs is Hernando County’s biggest tourist draw. And after this weekend, most of the mermaid statues will be moved to different spots throughout the county. One of them will be moved to its permanent home at the Visit Florida Welcome Center at the Florida-Georgia line in Jennings, Florida.

 A mermaid performs at Weeki Wachee in this postcard from 1949.
State Archives of Florida
/
Courtesy
A mermaid performs at Weeki Wachee in this postcard from 1949.

“We're going to create a trail with a map where people can go and see these beautiful works of art, and maybe discover pieces of Hernando County that it didn't know existed,” Athanason said.

Later this month, Weeki Wachee will be holding auditions for new mermaids.

Athanason said first and foremost, they are athletes. Those who wish to become a Weeki Wachee Springs mermaid have to be strong swimmers.

“Someone who looks comfortable underwater or someone who doesn't look panicky … when you're underwater and you're breathing compressed air, it can become dangerous,” Athanason said.


Copyright 2023 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7. To see more, visit WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7.

On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
Andrew Brusso / Courtesy
/
Courtesy
On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
 On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
/ Courtesy
/
Courtesy
On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
 On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
/ Courtesy
/
Courtesy
On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
 On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.
Andrew Brusso / Courtesy
/
Courtesy
On Jan. 12, 2023, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park will unveil 28 mermaid statues to celebrate its anniversary, in an exhibition called Destination Mermaid: The Tail Trail.

Susan Giles Wantuck