Fishy Tales: Weeki Wachee
Somewhere north of Clearwater and just south of Brooksville, well off the beaten path, is a little section of Florida that still clings desperately to the magical innocence of the state’s golden age of tourism. Weeki Wachee still looks very much like it did in it’s hey day of the 1950’s with only a minimal amount of updating to betray that this is really over four decades later.
In the mid 1940’s, a US Navy diving instructor named Newton Perry was looking for a body of water to test a new breathing apparatus he was developing. With its warm climate and crystal clear waters, Weeki Wachee Spring proved to be an ideal location to conduct his experiments in hose breathing techniques. Realizing the commercial potential of the area’s beauty, Perry leased the land, then owned by the City of St. Petersburg, and began to develop it as a tourist attraction.
The first order of business was the construction of the world’s first underwater theater that sat several feet below the surface. The original theater was little more than a covered seating area with a large window through which patrons watched underwater ballet shows. A group of synchronized swimmers from St. Petersburg were hired to entertain the guests. The newly christened Aquabells, wearing brightly colored one piece bathing suits, used the breathing hoses to remain underwater for long stretches while performing various maneuvers and stunts.
In the 1950’s, the ABC Television Network purchased both Weeki Wachee and Silver Springs to use them as filming locations as well as tourist attractions. The Weeki Wachee underwater theater received a major upgrade to the structure that is still there today. It would be another decade before the traditional mermaids, now so closely associated with the attraction, would be added to the roster.
ABC sold the park in the early 70’s and it changed hands multiple times after that. In 2001, Weeki Wachee almost joined the ranks of extinct Florida attractions due to years of neglect. It was at this point that concerned employees, including Marketing and PR Director John Athanason, started a grass roots effort to restore the park to its former glory. Thanks to donations from local businesses and a lot of hard work, the “Save Our Tails” campaign spent several years putting Weeki Wachee back in order.
In the fall of 2008, Weeki Wachee reached another milestone by becoming one of Florida’s official state parks. This new recognition will bring with it many changes including a greater emphasis on history and the natural environment. While these improvements are only in the formative stages at the present time, the next few years promise to be very dynamic ones for Florida’s City of Mermaids.
When I found out my friend Memphis Phil Patterson was going to be visiting Florida in March of this year, I new he would enjoy Weeki Wachee. This would also be a good excuse for me to visit the park for a second time, especially since my first trip there had been over a decade ago. The weather forecast for our trip was excellent but we still decided to get in early and take advantage of the cooler part of the day.
We had stayed in Pasco County the night before and didn’t realize we were only about twenty minutes away from the park. We arrived about thirty minutes before they opened and avoided having to pay any parking fees since the booth was unattended. We were the first ones there that Thursday so we spent a few minutes visiting with the friendly staff at the front office and discussing the history of the attraction.
As soon as the gates opened, we strolled into the park and interacted with the peacock population who were still roaming the sidewalks prior to settling in more remote areas. Making our way down to the boat docks, we decided to take the first river cruise of the day and get good seats.
Captain Albert took us on an approximately twenty minute leisurely voyage up the Weeki Wachee River and pointed out the various plants and animals it sustains. These days the trip has to be truncated due to the lowered water table that has made some of the river impossible to navigate in the park’s boats. According to our Captain, precipitation is currently almost thirty inches below normal and the river has dropped four inches just since he started there last fall.
There have been a few other noticeable changes on the cruise in recent years. The monkeys that once had their own private island tree house have been relocated to a zoo due to liability concerns. Native raccoons no longer line the river banks waiting for the boats to toss them bread. The state Wildlife Commission felt that feeding the animals interfered with their survival skills. Captain Albert said that now, instead of entertaining visitors, they knock over the trash cans in the park every night and litter it while foraging!
After the river cruise, it was time to experience the trademark of Weeki Wachee – the underwater mermaid shows. There are three shows daily, a morning and afternoon performance of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Little Mermaid and the Underwater Spectacular which pays tribute to the history of the park. As we entered the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theater, I noticed movie posters for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, which was filmed at multiple springs in Florida but Weeki Wachee was not one of them. According to Mr. Athanason, both Ricou Browning, who played the Creature in the underwater scenes, and Ginger Stanley, who doubled star Julie Adams for her swimming scenes, were both recruited from Weeki Wachee for the movie. There was also a poster for 1948’s Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid which was filmed there.
We took our seats and noticed that, with the possible exception of the electronics, the theater remains largely unchanged since the ABC renovations. The decline of the water level is most obvious here in the theater where the top of the viewing windows are now about eight inches above the water line. The Little Mermaid show has been around at least since my last visit and remains a favorite of visitors. When the park attempted to discontinue the show several years ago, guest complaints were so numerous that it was immediately reinstated. Younger visitors may be confused by the lack of similarities between this Little Mermaid and the more accessible Disney version but Weeki Wachee makes every effort to avoid comparison to a story that is otherwise tailor made for them.
After the first show, Memphis Phil and I wandered around and checked out the vintage architecture, a great deal of which is still standing from the early years. Most prominent is the famous column at the main entrance with the statue of the Aquabells in the adagio pose. There are a number of other interesting historic landmarks throughout the park including mermaids, a giant clam, and the original King Neptune photo op.
We ended up at the gift shop doing some souvenir shopping when the park’s train pulled up offering guests a brief tour. While I was certain that the miniature locomotive was intended for pre-teen passengers, Phil assured me had cleared our boarding with the lady conductor and insisted we take the ride. The tiny train did manage to pull its heavy cargo the entire length of the tour but I could swear I saw sparks shooting out from under our car on several occasions as metal scraped concrete!
We finished our shopping for mementos and Phil decided to enjoy the weather outside and eat an ice cream cone while I went to see the second underwater show. The Underwater Extravaganza, also known as Fish Tales, has only been around for about five years, so this was my first opportunity to see it. This is a multimedia trip through the history of the park featuring original film footage and live performances. Many of the vintage acts, including diving deep into the spring and drinking underwater, are recreated by the current mermaids and some even feature the original dialog tracks just like audiences heard decades ago. This show also includes a rare look behind the scenes at how the mermaids prepare for and perform their underwater routines.
I located Phil on a bench wishing he could light the cigar he had been carrying the whole time and we decide to call it a half day. In its current incarnation, Weeki Wachee is a fun trip back in time to the simpler days of tourist attractions. Hopefully the new state park designation will help it expand in the right direction and improve elements like the wildlife shows it could use more of. For an admission price of only $13.95 for adults when the adjacent water park,Buccaneer Bay, is closed and $24.95 the rest of the year, it’s some nostalgic Florida fun that’s hard to beat.
Special thanks to Marketing and PR Director John Athanason for his assistance with this article.