In the late ‘40s, long before the Magic Kingdom, stunt swimmer and attraction promoter Newt Perry spearheaded the development of one of Florida’s oldest and most beloved roadside attractions: Weeki Wachee Springs, the City of Mermaids. Take a trip to the park with award-winning author and historian Dr. Lucinda Vickers on June 6 at 7 PM in Rose History Auditorium. Dr. Vickers’s lecture, complete with vintage photos and videos from Weeki Wachee’s past, is sure to spark your imagination, if only for an evening.
Located about 45 miles north of Tampa, Weeki Wachee started out as a swimming hole, a natural spring 117 feet deep that feeds the seven-mile-long Weeki Wachee River. Perry built a theater into the spring’s bedrock with viewing windows below the surface of the water and submerged a system of air hoses and airlocks so that mermaids, highly trained swimmers and divers, could perform 20 feet down without surfacing for air.
In the park’s early days, the mermaids stoodalong the highway or posed on the roof of the mermaid theater in their bathing suits to attract the attention of passing cars. Travelers heading to vacation spots farther south soon realized that Weeki Wachee, right off the West Coast highway, was a convenient and interesting detour from what was a grueling two-lane road trip.
By the ‘60s, the mermaid shows were often sold out and attracted up to half a million visitors a year. The completion of I-75 and the emergence of several mega-theme parks changed all that, and Weeki Wachee fell on hard times. The attraction was bought and sold several times before becoming Florida’s 160th state park in 2008. A water theme park, Buccaneer Bay, a river boat cruise and canoe and kayak rentals are now just downstream.
Today’s merpeople (both mermaids and mermen) perform in a much larger theater (with a 400-seat capacity) and offer a daily schedule of underwater acts ranging from munching on an apple or enjoyinga soft drink to staging elaborate ballets and musicals. Attendance has been rising and shows are often filled to capacity, especially during the summer.
Weeki Wachee is still the only underwater mermaid theater in the world.
Dr. Lu Vickers earned a doctorate in creative writing from Florida State University and currently is a professor in the literature department at Tallahassee Community College. Dr. Vickers has written several books about Florida’s springs including two about Weeki Wachee: Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida’s Oldest Roadside Attractions, and Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty years of Underwater Photography. Her book Cypress Gardens, America’s Tropical Wonder won the 2011 Bronze Medal for Florida Non-Fiction. She is currently working on another book about Weeki Wachee.
Dr. Vickers’s lecture is free to Marco Island Historical Society members and $10 for nonmembers; all are invited to attend. Rose History Auditorium is located at 180 S. Heathwood Drive, across from the library. For more information, call 239- 389-6447 or visit www.the- MIHS.org.