Ever since it opened in 1947, the charmingly kitschy Weeki Wachee Springs, which is now a state park that sits an hour and a half west of Orlando, has been holding its own among those other Florida attractions you may have heard of. For one thing, it’s got mermaids. For another, the mermaids swim and dance in crystal-clear water fed by an ancient spring.
“The setting itself is what makes this place magical,” says John Athanason, a specialist with Florida’s Adventure Coast Tourism Bureau who has worked with the park for more than twenty years. “It’s not a girl swimming in a tank. When you’re sitting inside the theater and the curtain rises and you see this beautiful spring, you’re awestruck. There’s no other theater like it in the entire world.”
Besides the acrobatic mermaids pirouetting underwater while catching their breath with hookah-like air tubes, there’s the real possibility that a manatee might crash a live show—I’ve seen it. The performers made way for the friendly giant, spinning alongside it while we audience members, separated from the spring by a giant wall of glass, shrieked in delight from our subterranean seats.
To mark seventy-five years of such memories, Weeki Wachee is throwing an anniversary party this week. On January 12, Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitors Bureau will unveil the Mermaid Tale Trail, which features twenty-seven mermaid statues, hand-painted by regional artists, placed throughout nearby Brooksville and surrounding Hernando County. Local officials will also dedicate the park and the towering Adagio statue out front as National Historic Landmarks. One of the original mermaids, Dianne Wyatt McDonald, whose pose inspired the famed statue, also plans to attend the party. (Now in her nineties, McDonald shared her recollections of the park in an entertaining interview here).
“Whenever I sink beneath the surface of that beautiful water, I don’t want to get out again,” another mermaid, Vicki Smith, told me when she was seventy-eight and still performing. “There’s a freedom there. The movement of the current feels like silk wrapping you, and the bubbles become silver pearls all around.”
Performers, travelers, Floridians, and stars alike have found inspiration at Weeki Wachee. Visitors to the park can swim in the sandy-bottomed springs, refreshed by water that stays a mild seventy-two degrees year-round. Elvis Presley himself made time to visit Weeki Wachee in 1961 when he was filming Follow That Dream in Florida. Three thousand fans turned up, and as these photos show, the setting worked its magic on Presley.
Find more information about Weeki Wachee memories—and the anniversary festivities here.