Imagine it… October 13, 1947. With your family packed into the Studebaker, you’re en route to the Gulf of Mexico for a Florida vacation. Along the two-lane highway of US-19, a new sign catches your eye: WEEKI WACHEE.
Cars aren’t exactly common along this section of freeway, and the sound of your engine has drawn sirens from the deep. In the attraction’s early years, a cavalcade of swimsuit-clad girls would run out from inside to wave along the roadside. Like the sirens of legend, their goal was to entice sailors (in this case, probably the dad behind the wheel) to pull over. More often than not, it must’ve worked.
The girls of Weeki Wachee began as what you might call “tailless mermaids.” Newt Perry had recruited these beauties and trained them to swim with air hoses, smiling at the same time. They learned out to drink a non-carbonated beverage called Grapette and eat bananas underwater. But most strikingly of all, the girls of Weeki Wachee became the pioneers of aquatic ballet… an art more difficult than you might expect, as evidenced in the video here:
Imagine synchronized free diving in the pressure of the bottom of a pool, fighting the continuous current of the spring’s continuously refilling basin and gracefully batting away turtles and watching for venomous water moccasins, with eyes open, while smiling and you might have some idea of the persistance these aquatic athletes had.
There’s no question that the mermaids of Weeki Wachee were – above all else – skillfully trained, spectacularly strong athletes, and throughout the 1940s and ‘50s, Weeki Wachee became one of the best-known and most well-attended tourist stops in the state of Florida.
And like today’s NBA stars, their popularity was about to skyrocket. With one big change, the mermaids wouldn’t need to stand at the roadside anymore.
From its start in 1947, performances at Weeki Wachee were what you’d expect of a kitschy roadside attraction, simply infused with the surprisingly sincere efforts of some tremendously powerful athletes doing something no one had imagined before. And in 1959, the entire attraction was given a boost. Weeki Wachee Springs was purchased by the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) – the very entertainment company who helped to sponsor Walt’s Disneyland just four years earlier, and whom Eisner’s Walt Disney Company would later buy outright.
ABC saw that the tranquil Florida enclave was good for more than simply a pull-off from a two-land road. The old, 18-seat theater sunk 6-feet below the water’s surface wasn’t quite large enough for what ABC had in store. It was razed in favor of a 400-seat underwater auditorium set 16-feet into the water, providing unparalleled views of a stage formed by nature – a wonder in its own right.
In true cinematic style, ABC upped the ante by presenting underwater shows like “The Mermaids and the Pirates” and “Underwater Circus,” rotating with watery renditions of “Alice in Wonderland,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Peter Pan,” and “Snow White.”
Mermaids would now appear in the spring “magically” by pushing themselves through a water-filled, narrow, concrete tunnel that drops sixteen feet below the water’s surface, then runs 64 feet horizontally to the center of the stage. Naturally, ABC’s entertainment wizardry brought along elaborate underwater props, costume changes, synchronized music and audio, and even lifts…!
Suddenly, the swimmers of Weeki Wachee were celebrities. At its peak under ABC, the attraction had 35 mermaids on its payroll, many of whom lived in “mermaid cottages” along the spring. Still, applications flooded in from as far away as Tokyo as women dreamed of becoming one of the underwater beauties that had captivated the nation.
Elvis Presley, Don Knotts, and Olympian swimmer Esther Williams are among the big names of the era known to have visited the park, and ABC used it as a backdrop for Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid and a number of one-off television specials, like this one:
Weeki Wachee’s heyday under ABC couldn’t last forever.
As the ‘60s and ‘70s progressed, the decades-old roadside attraction began to fall out of favor. It’s really no different from our in-depth look at Disneyland’s Lost Legend: The Peoplemover and Walt’s Tomorrowland. The styles of mid-century Americana inherent in that New Tomorrowland (and in Weeki Wachee) were quickly identifiable to audiences as remnants from a different time… holdovers of an outdated style of architecture and entertainment, respectively.
And even as the tiny town of Weeki Wachee incorporated itself in 1966, finally securing a spot on nearby road signs, a much bigger, newer roadside attraction was coming… one that would be 40 square miles, and dub itself “the Vacation Kingdom of the World,” poised to crush such original Floridian gems… Read on…