Florida existed long before Walt Disney World.
Believe it or not, tourism in Florida existed before Mickey set up shop in the formerly quiet wetlands of Orlando, too.
In fact, you don’t need to drive far from the entertainment epicenter of Orange County to find yourself in real Florida – a land of wildlife, mangroves, wetlands, wildflowers, beaches, and natural, spring-fed lakes. Even today, as Harry Potter and Star Wars battle it out behind the gated walls of corporate playgrounds, other worlds exists just a daytrip away: worlds of alligators, dinosaurs, tikis, flamingos, parrots… and mermaids.
Before strip malls and outlets dotted the landscape, roadside attractions dating back to mid-century Americana littered the Floridian landscape, and while quite a few survive today, there may be none as fantastic as Weeki Wachee Springs, where mermaids are real. How did this unusual roadside attraction appear? What’s hidden away in the glassy waters of the Weeki Wachee River? Today, we’ll dive into the unusual tail of a roadside attraction that managed to survive in a Wizarding World market.
In this case, the story begins just after one of the darkest times in human history.
When servicemen returned from World War II, they found a country quite unlike the one they had left behind. The G.I. Bill provided benefits in housing and education that allowed servicemen to reestablish themselves in a new world where women ruled the workforce and had no intention of returning to domestic duties, fueling a new kind of economy. In this brave new world, households with two working parents created a new economic baseline, and a new cultural one, too.
It’s here in this unusual, changing society that many historians note the meteoric rise of the middle class; a new kind of American family with money to spare and a new benefit – leisure time – that would change American life as it was known. You can see how the pieces were in place, and with the automobile already integral in American culture, the 1940s saw the rise of an unprecedented cultural invention: the “family vacation.”
Just as the rise of the railroad had fueled the development of late-1800s picnic parks like Cedar Point, the widespread use of the automobile, the new concept of leisure time, and the peak of the middle class in the mid-century created the perfect canvas on which Walt Disney would build his masterpiece. The timing couldn’t have been better. Disneyland opened in 1955. Mom and dad pulled out the atlas, put an X over Anaheim, the family set off on a road trip.
That’s why businessmen across the country saw a new opportunity.
Along America’s newly established highways and byways, restaurants, hotels, motels, and what we’d now call “tourist traps” sprung up along the United States’ interior. Some of the most legendary are so-called “curiosities” (in the form of novelty architecture or pre-social-media viral marketing, like Santa Cruz, California’s “Mystery Spot”) offering gotta-see-it appeal and souvenir stands packed with postcards.
Luckily for Florida, it’s already got a natural wonder worth pulling the car over.
You haven’t seen water until you’ve seen Floridian spring water.
Fed via underwater aquifers, Florida’s springs are truly the unsung wonders of the natural world. If you thought the manmade waterway carved through Disney Springs was an exaggeration, you’re wrong. As clear and still as glass, these spectacular natural lagoons don’t just act as icy windows into the vibrant cerulean underwater world, they also provide 90% of the state’s drinking water… It’s easy to see why untouched Floridian wilderness becomes an almost-alien world in Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel Annihilation, as these springs also support entire ecosystems of plants and animals found no where else…
And more to our point today, for nearly a century they’ve supported tourism all their own – kayaking, diving, bird watching, swimming, hiking, and fishing. In the eyes of mid-century America, there was great money to be made in the natural wonders of Florida’s pristine wilderness… And in 1946 – eight years before ground would even be broken Disneyland – a former U.S. Navy man named Newton Perry saw a spectacular opportunity in one particular spring.
Newton Perry stumbled upon Weeki Wachee… a spring named by the Seminole Indians whose name means “little spring.”
Despite its unassuming name, the truth is that Weeki Wachee Springs itself is so deep that the bottom has never been found. Each day, 117 million gallons of water – a perfect 74-degrees Fahrenheit – flow from the spring and fill a 100-foot wide limestone basin. That basin – continuously refreshed from the bottomless spring below – feeds the Weeki Wachee River that winds 12 miles westward before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico.
After pulling decades of old, abandoned cars and rusted refrigerators out of the spring, Perry began toying with a new kind of invention. Rather than relying on oxygen tanks strapped to swimmers backs, he embedded long hoses into the spring, connected to air compressors on the surface. This, he found, would allow it to appear that humans could remain underwater for long periods, thriving twenty feet below the surface by breathing from the air hoses at will.
Quickly, he had constructed an 18-seat theater built six feet below the water’s surface into the limestone basin, with a glass window looking out on “the Grand Canyon of the Sea.” But he needed swimmers to perform the underwater ballet he had in mind… and you won’t believe who he found. Read on…