Photos by Kelsey Walters
Growing up, I may have had a slight obsession with mermaids. Ariel was my spirit animal and I wanted nothing more than to live under the sea. It’s no secret that my love for the merfolk lives on today, and I am absolutely thrilled that my infatuation has been passed down to my daughter, Avery.
Newly 4 years old, mermaids aren’t just a love of hers, it’s a way of life. After receiving her very own mermaid tail for her birthday, we knew it was time to help her live out her underwater fantasies. In Florida, there’s a spot where mermaid dreams come true.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park has been an attraction dating back to the native Seminole tribe, who named it Weeki Wachee – meaning “little spring” and “winding river.” In the 1940s, it was scoped out as an ideal spot for a tourist trap, and an original Old Florida roadside attraction was born. Former U.S. Navy man, Newton Perry, used his underwater military training to create a discrete system of air hoses and trained women to glide effortlessly underwater during synchronized routines. The Weeki Wachee Mermaids performed their first underwater show to a crowd of 18 in 1947 and have been flipping their fins ever since.
Today, the mermaids use the same style of air hoses to perform shows three times a day to adoring crowds of up to 400 in the now larger underwater theater. Avery brought along her mermaid tail and settled in for the first show of the day, having no clue what she was about to see. As the curtains came up, and the first mermaid swam by, she squealed with delight, exclaiming, “That’s a mermaid! For real life!” and waved excitedly to her new hero. This cemented it – mermaids are, in fact, real.
The mermaids perform varying shows, sometimes performing underwater feats like drinking an entire bottle of Coke, or playing out stories, like the classic, The Little Mermaid. As Avery watched her favorite story play out, she clapped and cheered and was dazzled by the “real life” mermaids.
During the warmer months, Weeki Wachee is essentially two parks with one admission, and there is plenty to do even if you’re not obsessing over the mermaids. As a state park, Florida sets capacity limits for admission and will close entry for the remainder of the day once it is reached. Especially on weekends and holidays, the park fills up quickly (think 11 a.m. or even earlier), so be sure to either hit the road with plenty of time to get in, or plan to stay in the area for early admission. We arrived when the park opened and headed straight for the 11 a.m. show, which began to queue at 10 a.m. and filled quickly.
You can also skip the first show and take a riverboat ride on the Weeki Wachee. These are only offered from 9:30 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. and are your best bet at spotting wildlife in the area. Make sure to hop in line early if this is a must-do on your list. The Ranger Experience show is offered right next to the boat dock throughout the day, for wildlife education and a close-up look at native Florida species.
After the mermaid shows, it’s your turn to get up close and personal, as one of the mermaids takes to land for a meet and greet just outside of the underwater theater. Here, you can have a waterside chat and take photos together. This is where Avery’s dreams really came true, as she had her chance to show off her new tail to a fellow mermaid. She was thrilled when Mermaid Lily gushed over her tail and asked where she found it. She replied with a giggle, “I didn’t find it, I’ve had it forever! I grew it like you!”
If you don’t plan to watch a show (which really, you should, if only to witness the feat of this amazing, effortless performance underwater) or have already seen one, you can hop in line to meet a mermaid 30 minutes after the show starts. We were first in line to meet Mermaid Lexi and got plenty of one-on-one time. Kids can also send their own handwritten letters, or Tail Mail, to the mermaid of their choosing and receive an autographed postcard in return, and a video posted to Facebook answering their mermaid or ocean related questions.
Adjacent to the mermaid spring and theater lies Buccaneer Bay, Florida’s only spring-fed water park with four waterslides that drop you right into the spring itself, a lazy river and kids’ splash zone. The large spring has a soft sandy bottom with two entrances featuring gradual beach-like approaches that are ideal for any age to enjoy. We decided to spend our morning exploring the mermaid side of the park, ate lunch at the on-site café with burgers and sandwiches, then as the sun warmed up, hit the water and became mermaids ourselves.
With so much to do, it’s no wonder that Floridians and visitors alike have flocked to the park for decades to see the world-famous Weeki Wachee residents. Avery is working hard on her Tail Mail and we can’t wait to head back soon to visit our favorite mermaids!
WEEKI WACHEE SPRINGS STATE PARK
$13/adult; $8/child 6 – 12; 5 and under free
Open daily from 9 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.
Mermaid Shows: 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m.
Buccaneer Bay is open on weekends only through May 30, then full-time for the summer