Youth And Magic At Weeki Wachee Springs



Youth & Magic: Weeki Wachee

 A Town In Florida With A Population Of 4 That Has A First Magnitude Crystal Clear Spring, Featuring Live Mermaids

Kristy The Mermaid [Courtesy/Mermaid Press]

Florida has always been a magical place, even before Disney.  The name itself means “flowery Easter” or “land of flowers.”  The name and founding was by Juan Ponce de Leon in 1513, who was searching for the Fountain of Youth, or so they say.  Judging by Ponce de Leon’s name for this beautiful place and his quest, he may well have thought he was on the track to find the legendary fountain.  If he were to explore inland some, he would have discovered several fountains, or springs, that could have served his enthusiasm.  Fast forward four hundred years and fifty years and one would find further evidence of a fountain of youth in a town called Weeki Wachee, population 4.  In this town exists Weeki Wachee Springs State Parks, a first magnitude crystal clear spring, that features live mermaids. A symbol of youth and magic…it has been going strong for well over 50 years.

“The camaraderie of the mermaids in astounding,” explains John Athanason, a person who has worked at the springs for 15 years.  “The stories they share, like inside jokes, and the way each generation of mermaids helps the next generation keeps our spring special.” There are currently 25 mermaids on payroll, mainly college students and young women who have always dreamed of becoming a mermaid.  “Everyone who lives in the area grows up coming to see the mermaids and dreams of becoming a mermaid or working with the mermaids,” Athanason explain. “That is how I started here.  I am a Native Floridian from Ocala and used to come to see the mermaids in their heyday and always wanted to work here.” 

The mermaids echo his sentiment.  “Growing up in the area, I always admired the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. I thought it would be a unique and fun job,” mermaid Kristy says.  “It does feel like we are part of a sorority. ”And it has always been that way…all the way back to 1947. 

River Boat Cruise Tour [Courtesy/River Boat Cruise]
The Beautiful Clear Waters At Weeki Wachi [Courtesy/River Boat Cruise]

The roadside attraction that developed at the natural springs started with a man named Newt Perry.  Perry had a long association with the movies, acting as a consultant to underwater-related cinema sequences in many movies from the 40s including “Creature From The Black Lagoon” and “Tarzan’s Secret Treasure”, both for Universal Pictures.  Perry made an apparatus that supplied air to the mermaids via air compressor to make it look like they are breathing underwater which is the same apparatus that is still being used today.  He created an 18-seat theater, which was expanded on in the 1950s by ABC, the television network, and is still used today.  “The theater itself is incredible,” Athanason says. “Nothing like it will ever exist again, with all the environmental laws in place now.  It has to be seen to be believed.” 

Throughout its long history, its guests have included the likes of Elvis Presley and Mickey Mantle, along with hundreds of thousands of others every year.  “We had over 400,000 last year,” Athanason says. He is a fan too – “I have been here for 15 years and every time that curtain opens in the theater, I get the chills.”

One of the reasons why the mermaids feel like a family is the intensity of the job and the auditioning process.  It takes 4-6 months to become a mermaid, who must be a scuba certified swimmer.  First, Athanason explains, “They need to pass a swim test, naturally.  They cannot become a mermaid if they are not an excellent swimmer.”

Stayce The Mermaid [Courtesy/Mermaid Press]
Katie The Mermaid [Courtesy/Mermaid Press]
Kristy Dives In The Water [Courtesy/Mermaid Press]

After the swim test, they are put in the water and “we see if they are comfortable in the water.  It is very obvious right away if a person is comfortable being underwater.  After that, there is a traditional interview.  If all that is good, then it is training in the shows.”  Veteran mermaids train the new mermaids and the show rolls on.

In 2008, the Weeki Wachee springs became a state park, along with the mermaid show.  “The state department does a remarkable job,” Athanason says, “now we have resources to do some much needed renovations to the show.”  There are 3-4 shows a day, each lasting about 30 minutes.  Any longer and there is a risk of hypothermia.  Each day over 100 million gallons of clear 72-degree water gets pumped through from subterranean caverns connected to the rivers under Florida.  As the body temperature is 98.6, too long exposure to 72 degrees lowers the body temperature.  “Safety is always the first concern,” Athanason explains, “which is why the audition process is so long.” 

Besides the girls on payroll, veteran mermaids called the Legendary Sirens give a show once a month.  Mermaid Kristy explains “we love hearing stories from when they swam.  They are an inspiration to us. ”Kristy also likes when the manatees come and perform with them, “sometimes they mimic our ballet moves!”

Whether camera crews from China, Europe and elsewhere are shooting informational videos or average Americans stopping through on the way to Tampa or Disney, all come intrigued by the mermaids in the land of flowers and leave in awe.  In a place as magical as Florida, it is only natural that mermaids are part of the mystique.

Andrew Malo

A graduate of Northeastern Illinois University in Education, Andrew has taught for the past decade in Chicago, New Mexico, and Japan.  He  enjoys tinkering with trucks and motorcycles, woodworking, reading and computer programming.  

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