Splish Splash

Weeki Wachee continues its tradition of natural marvels blended with bathing beauties • By John O'Mara, from the September 2013 issue of Jacksonville Magazine.

Few things cool a person off more quickly on a hot summer day than a dip into one of Florida’s freshwater springs. About a dozen miles from the state’s western shoreline is a spring that, for a time, achieved international fame for its crystal clear water and its resident bikini-clad mermaids. The mermaids are still there but the crowds have thinned in recent decades. Though, for a slice of old fashioned Florida, few destinations can match Weeki Wachee Springs’ mix of classic roadside kitsch and watery fun.

The first mermaid show at Weeki Wachee was presented one afternoon in the winter of 1947. The park’s heydays were in the late 1950s and early ‘60s, when some 500,000 visitors per year would keep the entrance turnstiles humming. Today, the attraction and grounds are operated as part of the Florida State Park system and, truth be told, the old gal is showing her years.

She doesn’t have the shininess and perfect groundskeeping one expects at the state’s mega-theme parks. But that’s okay. The small-town, somewhat corny presentation is all part of the show. Shamu doesn’t live here and that’s just fine, particularly because the admission prices are a fraction of what they are in Orlando’s huge attractions.

The park itself is relatively small. One day is plenty to experience everything from the mermaid shows to a riverboat ride to trips down the slides at Buccaneer Bay water park. Pontoon boats ferry guests for lazy rides on the Weeki Wachee River, where they may spot gators, turtles, fish, otters and assorted birds. Of course, there is a gift shop stocked with all sorts of mermaid-themed shirts, snow globes and other merchandise.

Several half-hour mermaid shows are staged daily and are truly the highlight of the Weeki Wachee experience. Visitors are immersed deep into the natural spring via a theater that is carved into the rock approximately 16 feet below the water’s surface. The mermaids perform their trademark underwater spins and dives, occasionally taking gulps of air from strategically placed air hoses hidden in the watery landscape. The audience stays warm and dry courtesy of a thick glass window that keeps the springs’ 117 million gallons of fresh water at bay.

Vintage video footage and a cheesy soundtrack add to the nostalgic vibe and despite the lack of lasers, motion-sensing seats or other high-tech effects, the show still works. Even the kids will enjoy it. Probably.

Weeki Wachee is located about an hour north of Tampa. Admission is $13 for adults, kids ages 6-12 are $8, under 5 is free. The mermaid shows and a ride on the river boat are included.