The first (and only) time I saw a mermaid show, I was captivated. It was nothing like I expected.
I left Mermaid Theater in Weeki Wachee Springs State Park intrigued by what I’d just witnessed.
For 30 minutes, mermaids danced to choreographed routines as music played through speakers and a narrator unveiled the story being acted out. Unlike most theaters, though, the stage for this performance was completely underwater. They shared the spotlight with other live creatures as well (mainly fish and sea turtles—but really lucky guests may also see one of Florida’s most protected mammals, the manatee, graze through the set).
These guest stars are able to make appearances because the ‘stage’ area is in the spring itself! Florida State Parks explains that the basin of the spring is 100 feet wide with limestone sides, making it “the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States.” This unique theater built around Weeki Wachee’s natural history is part of the draw for tourists who have never seen anything like it.
“When people come see the mermaids perform, they’re not in a tank, they’re not in an aquarium, they’re in a natural setting,” said John Athanason, public relations manager for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in a WUSF article. “In fact, our guests are the ones in a tank.”
And the underground tank that contains the audience is now quite large, with the capacity to seat over 400 guests! It didn’t start out this way, though. When it was first built in 1946 by Newton Perry, it was a tiny 18-seat theater, and Weeki Wachee wasn’t even on the map. But that began to change in October of 1947 when the underwater theater officially opened and the first mermaid show took place. An article detailing the history of Weeki Wachee describes the performance as one of “synchronized ballet moves.”
Despite the mermaids making it look easy, these choreographed routines are anything but! The women are submerged 16 to 20 feet with no breathing apparatus (like scuba gear) attached to them. Their only source of air is through a hose that supplies oxygen from an air compressor. Breathing in this way would be difficult enough for an extended period of time, but they also have another challenge to contend with: the 5-mile-per-hour current flowing from the spring to the Gulf of Mexico via the Weeki Wachee River.
Not surprisingly, a performance as novel as this quickly drew more and more attention, and by the 1950s, Weeki Wachee had become known as a tourist destination all throughout the United States. Even Elvis Presley came to see these magical mermaids perform in 1961!
With a colorful history now incredibly spanning almost 75 years, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs show no signs of packing their tails away anytime soon. I saw them back in 2014, and today they continue to delight visitors who make the special trip out to one of Florida’s oldest attractions.