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Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Old attraction is an endangered species.

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Entrance to Weeki Wachee Springs
©Dawn Henthorn
Editor's Note: Effective November 1, 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became the 160th Florida State Park. Changes in hours of operation and admission may take effect without notice.

If you look closely at this picture, there is a dark cloud hanging over the towering mermaid statues at the entrance to Weeki Wachee Springs. Ironically, there is a dark cloud of a different sort hanging over this historic attraction — one that casts an imposing shadow over its future. And, while is in inevitable that the sun will shine again for future photo opportunities, it is less likely the cloud of uncertainty over the park's future will clear any time soon.

Weeki Wachee History

When a man named Newton Perry first opened Weeki Wachee, more alligators and black bears lived in the area than humans. The year was 1947 and Highway 19 was only a two-lane road. Most other roads were dirt and there were no gas stations or grocery stores.

Newton, a former Navy man who trained SEALS to swim underwater in World War II, had a vision for a new business. He had experimented with a free-flowing air hose for underwater breathing. He built an 18-seat theatre into the limestone at the edge of a spring and recruited pretty young girls to swim underwater. He taught them to smile and breathe with his new air hose — while underwater. They also learned to drink beverages and eat underwater.

There was no marketing at the time and traffic was sparse, so when the girls heard a car coming, they would run outside in their bathing suits and lure travelers inside for a performance. Remarkably, the "Mermaids" became known worldwide, and by the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of the nation's most popular tourist stops. Besides the Mermaid Shows, there were beautiful gardens, jungle cruises and a beach.

Perhaps the attraction's heyday began in 1959 when the spring was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) and was heavily promoted. It was ABC who built the current theater which seats 500 and added elaborate props, lifts, music and story lines to the show.

The 1960s brought celebrity to the attraction. While movies had been filmed before at the attraction, the summer of 1961 brought Elvis Presley to the area to film Follow That Dream. On his one day off, he was honored for his achievements at Weeki Wachee. It was so well publicized that 15,000 fans showed up to welcome him.

Elvis wasn’t the only celebrity to come see the mermaids. Don Knotts, Esther Williams and Arthur Godfry were just a few of the big names. It was also around that time that girls came from all over the world to try out for the coveted mermaid positions.

Of course, by the late 1960s Walt Disney had announced his intention to build a Florida "Disneyland." When Disney World opened in 1971 it was located along Florida's new interstate highway system – a direct route to the mouse that eventually meant trouble for the mermaids.

Aside from the addition of the water park, Buc

caneer Bay, in 1982, Weeki Wachee changed little over the years.

Weeki Wachee Today

If there was an endangered species list for attractions, Weeki Wachee Springs could easily qualify. It’s obvious that the park is struggling and trying to make the best of a bad situation. Gone is the birds of prey show and the once lush gardens have become a bit straggly. The mermaids still swim and smile, but fewer tourists fill the underwater theatre these days. Limited park hours mean that visitors are not guaranteed a seat on the Wilderness River Cruise, and the only other show still operating besides the mermaids is an animal show.

Still it is very worthwhile to try to catch all the shows. I found them interesting and entertaining.

Buccaneer Bay

The park’s one bright spot is Buccaneer Bay – a seasonal water park built around the springs. Water flumes and a white sand beach provide plenty of family fun. The fact that Buccaneer Bay is included in the price of admission makes it a worthwhile adventure for you day-trippers.

Buccaneer Bay is open seasonally.

Information and Directions

Hours are subject to change without notice. Buccaneer Bay is open seasonally from March through September.

One-day admission to Weeki Wachee Springs is $13.00 (plus tax) for adults and $8.00 (plus tax) for children ages 6-12. Children age 5 and under are admitted free. One-day admission to Buccaneer Bay is now included in the above prices. Annual passes are available for $60.00 for Weeki Wachee Springs and Buccaneer Bay. Parking is free.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is located at 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee — at the southwest corner of Highways 50 and 19.

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