Discovering magical mermaids, memories at Weeki Wachee Springs

August, 2022
Weeki Wachee Springs

Mermaid shows take place daily at the underwater theater at Weeki Wachee Springs. Pam LeBlanc photo

I grew up in Austin and loved my family’s occasional trips to Aquarena Springs in San Marcos, where we’d sit in a dark, submerged theater and watch a cast of mermaids and swimming pigs dip and dive in front of us. 

So, when I found myself with a free afternoon during a trip to Florida last month, I made a beeline for Weeki Wachee Springs, where the original mermaid shows began. 

Weeki Wachi Springs

The curtain rises at a mermaid performance at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in July 2022. Pam LeBlanc photo

The small roadside attraction opened on the western coast of Florida nearly 75 years ago. Since 1947, generations of mermaids have held their breath for impressively long periods of time and accommodated the occasional wayward manatee as they performed in the springs’ clear, 74-degree water.  

History of Weeki Wachee Springs 

Newton Perry, who had trained U.S. Navy frogmen during World War II, dreamed up the idea for a tourist attraction back when the highway that ran along Florida’s west coast was a two-lane road. He cleared the springs of old refrigerators and broken-down cars and planned an underwater ballet that would star “mermaids” breathing from long air hoses. He built an 18-seat theater on one side of the springs, and the cast began rehearsals.  

It didn’t take off immediately.  

Related: Summer in South Haven, Michigan

So little traffic passed by in those early days that the mermaids sometimes ran to the road in their swimsuits to lure motorists into the park, according to the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park website.  

But soon it caught on. The mermaids were glamorous. Tourists came in droves, and women across the country applied for mermaid jobs. 

Weeki Wachee Springs

Mermaids perform a production of “The Little Mermaid” at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Pam LeBlanc photo

Back then, the cast performed eight shows a day. The mermaids not only performed breath-defying dances for fans, they also drank from bottles of non-carbonated Grapette and nibbled bananasall while hovering about 20 feet under the surface. Half a million tourists a year, including celebrities such as Elvis Presley and Esther Williams, watched in rapt attention during the park’s peak in the 1950s.  

Texas gets its own mermaid park 

Back in Texas, a furniture and coffin store owner named A.B. Rogers was operating a small hotel and giving glass-bottom boat rides on the San Marcos River. When his son Paul Rogers took over the business in 1950, he installed a 125-seat underwater theater modeled after Weeki Wachee Springs and hired a cast of “aquamaids.” A small theme park called Aquarena Springs was born. 

The American Broadcasting Company bought Weeki Wachee Springs in 1959 and built the current theater, which seats 400 people. In 2008, the roadside attraction became a state park. 

In Texas, Aquarena Springs operated until 1994. A crane plucked the old submarine theater from the water in 2012, and today Spring Lake is home to the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment. 

An afternoon at Weeki Wachee Springs 

The Florida theme park still operates much as it did when it opened. During my recent visit, the parking lot was mostly full, and only a few empty seats remained inside the theater for the 3 p.m. mermaid show. 

Related: Diving into French Polynesia’s Dreamy Manihi

I slipped into the air-conditioned theater just as a curtain of bubbles rose on “The Little Mermaid” performance. Mermaids with sparkling tails, a villainous witch with a spooky voice, an anthropomorphic sea turtle, and a heroic sailor all played into the narrative, which has aose plot is clearly still stuck in the 1950s. The under-12 set loved every minute, and as a swimmer, I found myself admiring how long each performer could hover, without breath, in one spot. Also, I liked watching the fish swoosh around in what looked like a giant aquarium. (The manatees didn’t make an appearance this time.)  

After the show 

Weeki Wachee Springs

Visitors can take a boat ride at Weeki Wachee Springs. Pam LeBlanc photo

The mermaid show isn’t the only attraction at the park.  

Visitors can swim at Buccaneer Bay, an adjacent swimming area with a sandy beach and pair of huge, twisty slides that opened in 1982, or rent a kayak and paddle 2.8 miles down the clear-as-gin Weeki Wachee River. (The river flows 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico, but if you want to get back to the park, you’ll have to pick up the shuttle after 2.8 miles.) There’s a wilderness boat cruise, too. 

The kitschy little park doesn’t have speeding roller coasters or high-flying rides. It serves up something much better – a dose of nostalgia.  

Weeki Wachee Springs

The water is clear and cold at Weeki Wachee Springs. Pam LeBlanc photo

Follow Austin Travels


Austin Travels is a women-owned, Austin-based travel magazine committed to highlighting destinations in Texas and beyond through the lenses of diverse and talented writers.

Subscribe

@austintravelsmag

Dreaming of Disney World? 10 takeaways for a less daunting, more magical trip

Dreaming of Disney World? 10 takeaways for a less daunting, more magical trip

A rare retreat to mountainside luxury at Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch

A rare retreat to mountainside luxury at Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch

Discovering magical mermaids, memories at Weeki Wachee Springs

Discovering magical mermaids, memories at Weeki Wachee Springs

36 hours of family fun in New Orleans

36 hours of family fun in New Orleans

Recapturing Zen at Kripalu

Recapturing Zen at Kripalu

Soaking in family fun in Seattle

Soaking in family fun in Seattle

Scalloping, saltwater springs and seashell strolls on Florida’s Sports Coast

Scalloping, saltwater springs and seashell strolls on Florida’s Sports Coast

Slowing down by the sea in Ambergris Caye, Belize

Slowing down by the sea in Ambergris Caye, Belize

Frolicking in Finland: Contemporary design and Nordic adventures await

Frolicking in Finland: Contemporary design and Nordic adventures await

At Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a ‘Festivarian’ is born

At Telluride Bluegrass Festival, a ‘Festivarian’ is born

Summer in South Haven, Michigan

Summer in South Haven, Michigan

The Green O: Mother Nature’s Posh Playground

The Green O: Mother Nature’s Posh Playground

Walking in Memphis: History, soul music and good trouble in Tennessee

Walking in Memphis: History, soul music and good trouble in Tennessee

Fishing, golf and more in the Santee region of South Carolina

Fishing, golf and more in the Santee region of South Carolina

Family friendly fun during a quick trip to New York City

Family friendly fun during a quick trip to New York City

A Mother’s Day getaway to charming Charleston

A Mother’s Day getaway to charming Charleston

Playing in Portland, Austin’s Unofficial Sister City

Playing in Portland, Austin’s Unofficial Sister City

Spring and summer stops in Southern Colorado

Spring and summer stops in Southern Colorado

Skiing, snowshoeing and biking in breathtaking Banff

Skiing, snowshoeing and biking in breathtaking Banff

Sweet spots for family fun in Santa Barbara, California

Sweet spots for family fun in Santa Barbara, California

8 Tips for Skiing with Kids

8 Tips for Skiing with Kids

Chilling Out at Beaver Creek Resort

Chilling Out at Beaver Creek Resort

7 magical things to do in Door County, Wisconsin

7 magical things to do in Door County, Wisconsin

Family fun: 5 can’t-miss attractions when visiting St. Louis

Family fun: 5 can’t-miss attractions when visiting St. Louis

Family travel: Calm and cool in Los Angeles

Family travel: Calm and cool in Los Angeles

Mother-daughter getaway: Finding MGK, music and magic in Cleveland

Mother-daughter getaway: Finding MGK, music and magic in Cleveland

COVID Testing and Traveling Abroad: Know Before You Go

COVID Testing and Traveling Abroad: Know Before You Go

A rare glimpse at pearl farming in Tahiti

A rare glimpse at pearl farming in Tahiti

Family travel: Meandering through Montreal

Family travel: Meandering through Montreal

Five reasons Colorado’s Winter Park Resort should be on your family’s ski trip list

Five reasons Colorado’s Winter Park Resort should be on your family’s ski trip list

Squeezing in every snowy moment at Solitude Mountain Resort

Squeezing in every snowy moment at Solitude Mountain Resort

Here’s what’s new at resorts for the 2021-22 ski season

Here’s what’s new at resorts for the 2021-22 ski season

Big Easy delights: Food, fun and family in New Orleans

Big Easy delights: Food, fun and family in New Orleans

Uncovering the magic and mystery of Washington State

Uncovering the magic and mystery of Washington State

Red River is ripe with reasons to visit

Red River is ripe with reasons to visit

Must-Do’s in Denver

Must-Do’s in Denver

Falling for Cape Cod’s off-season charms

Falling for Cape Cod’s off-season charms

Heeding the call of Nashville’s siren song

Heeding the call of Nashville’s siren song

7 ideas for family fun in Panama City Beach, Florida

7 ideas for family fun in Panama City Beach, Florida

Reading Roxane Gay at the Mauna Lani in Hawaii

Reading Roxane Gay at the Mauna Lani in Hawaii

Keeping it cool in Grand Teton and Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Keeping it cool in Grand Teton and Jackson Hole, Wyoming

Summertime in Colorado: 4 spots ripe for family fun

Summertime in Colorado: 4 spots ripe for family fun

Conquering Austria’s Alpine Road

Conquering Austria’s Alpine Road

Fort Collins: Paddling, Hiking and Biking, Oh My

Fort Collins: Paddling, Hiking and Biking, Oh My

A new tour through the past at Oak Alley Plantation

A new tour through the past at Oak Alley Plantation

Explore the gravel roads around Fort Collins on the FoCo Fondo bike ride

Explore the gravel roads around Fort Collins on the FoCo Fondo bike ride

Fully vaccinated? Traveling to Puerto Rico just got breezier

Fully vaccinated? Traveling to Puerto Rico just got breezier

To date a matador: Seduced by Spain

To date a matador: Seduced by Spain

Cabin culture: Escape the crowds at these remote U.S. hideaways

Cabin culture: Escape the crowds at these remote U.S. hideaways

Essay: Can we really leave no trace when we travel?

Essay: Can we really leave no trace when we travel?

Mountain biking mecca Mesa Verde Country is a must-ride

Mountain biking mecca Mesa Verde Country is a must-ride

Bike to Bentonville for 150 miles of trails and much more

Bike to Bentonville for 150 miles of trails and much more

Colorado’s Calling –– Take a summer trip to this cool state now

Colorado’s Calling –– Take a summer trip to this cool state now

Set your sights on Steamboat Springs this summer

Set your sights on Steamboat Springs this summer

A foodie’s guide to eating (and foraging and making chocolate) in Costa Rica

A foodie’s guide to eating (and foraging and making chocolate) in Costa Rica

Discovering hints of home in Red River

Discovering hints of home in Red River

New Mexico road trip: 10 top experiences, from Albuquerque to White Sands

New Mexico road trip: 10 top experiences, from Albuquerque to White Sands

Diving into the history of falconry at The Broadmoor

Diving into the history of falconry at The Broadmoor

5 questions with influencer Jeff Jenkins, who helps ‘chubby people travel the world’

5 questions with influencer Jeff Jenkins, who helps ‘chubby people travel the world’

Finding a ranch to call home in Granby, Colorado

Finding a ranch to call home in Granby, Colorado

Oyster safaris and mystery solving along Sweden’s Bohuslan Coast

Oyster safaris and mystery solving along Sweden’s Bohuslan Coast

Escape to Los Angeles: 5 fun things to do in Southern California

Escape to Los Angeles: 5 fun things to do in Southern California

Adventures Await: Roaming the road in a campervan

Adventures Await: Roaming the road in a campervan

If you’re heading west, 5 reasons to visit the California gem of Terranea

If you’re heading west, 5 reasons to visit the California gem of Terranea

For every season: A house divided over Estes Park, Colorado

For every season: A house divided over Estes Park, Colorado

The soaking life: A baker’s dozen of the best historic spas across the world

The soaking life: A baker’s dozen of the best historic spas across the world

California escape: Peace, harmony and inspiration in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs

California escape: Peace, harmony and inspiration in Joshua Tree and Palm Springs

When the snow melts and winter crowds leave, these Colorado spots are the coolest

When the snow melts and winter crowds leave, these Colorado spots are the coolest

Dreaming of a Virgin Islands Vacation? Tips for traveling to St. John right now

Dreaming of a Virgin Islands Vacation? Tips for traveling to St. John right now

Dreaming of the RV life? Lessons learned from a 10-day national park road trip

Dreaming of the RV life? Lessons learned from a 10-day national park road trip

Colorado Ski Gems

Colorado Ski Gems

Escape crowds and capture memories in snowy Southwest Montana

Escape crowds and capture memories in snowy Southwest Montana

What to know before you book a ski trip during a pandemic

What to know before you book a ski trip during a pandemic