By Christy Swift
Photos Courtesy Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitors Bureau
If you haven’t heard of the Weeki Wachee mermaids, you probably haven’t been in Florida very long. And if you have, you might be wondering how this iconic piece of Old Florida has managed to stay afloat in the wake of Disney World, Universal, and other, bigger attractions.
Maybe it’s because there’s something inherently magical about a little town known for its mermaids. Maybe some folks just care a whole lot about preserving this unique swatch of local color. This year, to celebrate 75 years of real live mermaids, Florida’s Adventure Coast has partnered with local businesses and organizations to unveil the Mermaid Tale Trail, a driving tour of 27 mermaid statues painted by local artists throughout Hernando County.
So, how did this whole mermaid thing start? In 1946, Newton Perry, a former U.S. Navy
man who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, had a vision of turning the Weeki Wachee spring into something special. He reached out to a local synchronized swimming team, the St. Pete Aquabelles, and trained them to do acrobatics underwater using a special underwater breathing apparatus he’d invented. On October 13, 1947, the underwater theater at Weeki Wachee Springs opened, and this one-of-a kind roadside attraction was born. But sleepy US-19 wasn’t known for its mermaids just yet. Sometimes traffic was so slow, the girls would go out to the road to flag travelers down, just like the mythical sirens of old, then jump into the water to perform.
Diane Wyatt McDonald, one of the original eight mermaids, talks about how she and her friends, just teenagers at the time, choreographed that first underwater routine when they auditioned for Mr. Perry. “We went down almost 40 feet with no masks, no air, just us.” It was a winner. After some tweaks, they were ready to perform weekends for the small, 18-20 person venue. After the show, they’d swim to the beach and be met with bath towels and escorted to a heated dressing room. “We weren’t paid, but we got lunch!” Wyatt McDonald recalls. “To this day, I get goosebumps when we go down that curve into Weeki Wachee. I’m very proud to have been a mermaid.”
The “Tale” of Florida’s Mermaids
Over the years, the Weeki Wachee mermaids continued to evolve. “The concept of tails didn’t come around until the sixties,” explains John Athanason, a tourism marketing specialist for Florida’s Adventure Coast. That was right after ABC purchased the spring and built the current, 400-seat amphitheater. “That was Weeki Wachee’s heyday,” Athanason says. “It’s been said that Elvis Presley stopped filming in Florida on one of his movies so he could come see the mermaids perform.” The mermaids were officially famous.
In the late sixties, the spring was sold and “fell into a variety of different people’s hands,” Athanason says. By the ‘80s it was hard to compete with the bigger theme parks, so the Buccaneer Bay water park was opened to appeal to locals. By 2001, the park was falling into disrepair, but Athanasan and others began an initiative to save it. In November 2008, the Weeki Wachee Spring became a state park. Today, when you come to Weeki Wachee, you not only get to enjoy the mermaid show, but you can swim in crystal clear 74.2 degree water, enjoy a white sand beach, float down a slow, natural “lazy river,” and catch a thrill on the slides at Florida’s only natural spring-fed water park. There is also a river boat ride and reptile show. Florida’s best “roadside attraction” is still here and going strong.
A Natural Jewel
Weeki Wachee is a Seminole word meaning either “winding river” or “little spring.” Every day, more than 117 million gallons of clear, fresh water bubbles up out of subterranean caverns. The basin of the spring is 100 feet wide with limestone sides. The park is home to a host of wildlife, including bald eagles, turtles, blue heron, wild turkey, deer, and freshwater fish. Flowing from the spring, the Weeki Wachee River winds its way 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
Special places like Weeki Wachee State Park can easily be overshadowed by flashier tourist attractions, but there are always those who appreciate a little slice of Old Florida, or as some of us call it—real Florida. The Mermaid Tale Trail is a kind of treasure map showing them the way.
The Mermaid Tale Trail, a Treasure Map to Old Florida
To commemorate 75 years of Weeki Wachee mermaids, the Florida’s Adventure Coast tourist office, with the help of Brooksville Main Street and the Hernando County Fine Arts Council, commissioned 27 mermaid statues to be placed throughout Hernando County. A 28th will be placed at the Florida/Georgia Welcome Center on 1-75.
Each statue is a beautiful, seven-foot mermaid hand-painted by a local artist. The face of each mermaid is that of actual Weeki Wachee mermaid Kristy Lowman. All the statues have been sponsored, and most have already been unveiled at their new homes across the county at beaches, parks, public areas, and businesses.
“There are so many wonderful places to visit. The trail will hopefully send people in those directions, and apparently that’s what it’s doing, and we’re going to continue it,” Athanason says.
You can find out where each mermaid is located and get a peek at her tail at floridamermaidtrail.com/tale-trail- mermaids/, but you’ll have to go see her in person for the full impact. “These statues are 360 degrees,” Athanason reminds us. The website also provides background into the artist who painted her.
“The Spring” mermaid was painted by a real live mermaid located at the Weeki Wachee spring itself, “The Spring” mermaid was sponsored by the Friends of Weeki Wachee and painted by artist and Weeki Wachee mermaid herself, Lydia Byrd. Her art includes scenes of Newton Perry, past mermaids, and a popular seahorse prop named “Bubbles.” Elvis Presley gets a shout-out, too. Each scene on the rock is based on real photographs taken at the spring over the past 75 years. “I hope mermaids of the past can look at this statue and reminisce on the best years of their lives. I hope guests coming to see the park for the first time will be in awe of the history this place holds. Overall I hope it will captivate viewers to keep looking at all of the hidden details, and bring a smile to everyone who knows and loved the spring,” Byrd says.
“Marina” focuses on protecting the ocean’s treasures and secrets.
Located at the Hernando Beach Motel, “Marina” the mermaid was painted by Renata Villemarie, an artist originally from Russia who now lives in Spring Hill. She is a mobile muralist for the Hernando County Arts Council, a featured artist in the Uptown Gallery, and an art teacher. She focused on the “darker,” more mythical side of mermaids—how they lure sailors to the sea and protect treasures. She named the mermaid after her mother. “I put a goddess on the back of my mermaid,” Villemarie says. “I’m not going to tell you which one it is—you can come and look at it!”
“Nico and the Velvet Underwater” is not only a piece of art, she’s a musician.
Sponsored by NatureCoaster.com and painted by Brooksville artist Jesse Kasabian, “Nico “Nico and the Velvet Underwater” the mermaid has a unique, dynamic, musical theme. Inspired by his favorite band, the Velvet Underground, Kasabian created “Nico and the Velvet Underwater,” a mermaid who jams out with her friends—a dolphin, seahorse, and turtle. “I actually feel like art is getting closer to God,” Kasabian says. Kasabian played “Under the Sea” on his electric guitar during the unveiling ceremony at Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill.
Athanason says the 75th anniversary project has been so successful that they plan to add more mermaids every year. “Eventually we want to end up with 100 throughout the county,” he says.
For more information about the Mermaid Tale Trail, visit www.floridamermaidtrail.com/tale-trail.
For more information on Weeki Wachee State Park, visit www.floridastateparks.org/WeekiWachee.
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