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Mermaids Are Real. This Is the "Tail" of the Enchanted Florida Spring They Call Home.

It won’t come as much of a surprise that the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971 appeared to be the final nail in the coffin of Florida’s roadside attractions. It wasn’t just that the Orlando-area resort was its own kind of “walled garden” with its own eco-tourism, kayaking, boating, camping, and more… it was that Walt Disney World was merely a symptom of the changing times.

Just as Disneyland had been fueled by the rise of the automobile and its crowning achievement, the family vacation, this new Walt Disney World would be fueled not by cars, but by airplanes. Inexpensive commercial flight had changed the tourism game upon its arrival in the era, which is why one of Magic Kingdom’s original attraction gems was the Lost Legend: If You Had Wings. At the time, an exploration into aviation actually fit in Tomorrowland, as the possibilities of air travel were poised to change the future!

There was just one problem... Planes arriving in Orlando skimmed right over tiny towns like Weeki Wachee and the roadside attractions they offered. So while tourist attractions lucky enough to have been established close to Orlando – like another Roadside Wonder: Gatorland – actually grew in attendance after Disney World's opening, the '70s and '80s weren't so kind to other attractions throughout the state.

Click and expand for a larger and more detailed view. Image: Disney, via ImagiNERDing

It must’ve seemed that the mermaids of Weeki Wachee survived in spite of Walt Disney World, certainly not because of it. In 1982, Weeki Wachee added a pirate-themed Buccaneer Bay water park to draw tourists, but it seemed that time was running short for the forty-year-old attraction.

...Until a mermaid exploded in theaters, providing a cultural boost. And it may not be the mermaid you're thinking of.

The Little Mermaid(s)

In the 1980s, things were changing quickly at Walt Disney Productions thanks to new CEO Michael Eisner, who set out to revitalize the company’s tarnished, tired image after a decade of dustiness after Walt’s death.

One of his first decrees was that Disney needed to transform its filmmaking to appeal to wider audiences. In 1984, he established the Touchstone Pictures label to release films that didn’t fit with Disney’s cartoon image. 

Image: Disney

One of the first was Ron Howard’s Splash, a fantastical romantic comedy about a mermaid (played by Daryl Hannah) who falls for a businessman she rescued (Tom Hanks) and must choose between life on land and in the sea while avoiding a scheming scientist determined to expose her for what she really is.

As Eisner had hoped, Splash served to revitalize Walt Disney Productions (and, by the way, literally created the name Madison), but it also set the stage for Disney’s next coup. Just as a mermaid had given Walt Disney Studios new legs, so too would a mermaid provide for the rebirth of Disney’s animation.

Image: Disney

Hans Christian Andersen’s nautical fable about a mermaid who longs for love in the world above had already been adapted many times over at Weeki Wachee and elsewhere, but Disney’s 1989 film The Little Mermaid had the kind of cultural impact not since in decades.

Across the planet, boys and girls began to dream of being mer-people, gliding along the bubbling clear currents of an underwater world. It’s unquestionable that the resurgence of the mermaid via Splash and The Little Mermaid must’ve provided the boon Weeki Wachee needed in the ‘90s, returning it to Floridian prominence, albeit now as a day trip from Walt Disney World akin to the Kennedy Space Center, Cypress Gardens, or Gatorland.

Image: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Perhaps that was the reboot the park needed. It's no surprise that at about this time, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee began to take their titles a little more literally, never seen without sporting their tails, in or out of the water. It's also at about this time – in 1997 – that Weeki Wachee began hosting Mermaids of Yesteryear shows, inviting back former aquatic performers who – by that time – might watched their own daughters or granddaughters take on a tail of their own.

There's something magical and unforgettable about seeing the mermaids of Weeki Wachee and how they make something so difficult appear so simple, and with so much grace and ease. 

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

In 2008, the park was absorbed into the Florida State Park system as Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. At over 500 acres (about the total size of Disney's Animal Kingdom), this one-of-a-kind state park has elevated its mermaids from roadside attraction to genuine Florida attraction. Generations of locals and tourists have explored this natural wonder, and that continues to this day.

Though the unique shows continue in the Mermaid Theater, there's even more to see and do.

Image: Weeki Wachee Spring State Park

Buccaneer Bay remains the only spring-fed waterpark in the state, with crystal waters clear enough to see through like ice. Twenty five minute River Boat Cruises explore the real Floridian wilderness along the Weeki Wachee River, sometimes sailing alongside kayakers, canoers, and manatees that travel to and from the bubbling spring. Naturally, the park also offers animal shows and encounters, hiking trails, snorkling, and more.

And for all of those children inspired by Madison, Ariel, and Triton, multi-day mermaid camps for children ages 7 - 14... and another for adults, too.

Mermaids Are Real

Image: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Just as a simplistic, mid-century optimism fueled the design and feel of Walt's Space-Age-set New Tomorrowland, the genuine whimsy of Weeki Wachee must've looked and felt like the remnants of a bygone era throughout the '70s and '80s. Perhaps the arrivals of Splash and The Little Mermaid helped bolster the park in the '90s. But the real, true key to the park's survival? Time.

By surviving the end of the 20th century and the arrival of the behemoth Walt Disney World, Weeki Wachee made it to a new day. And today, the very core of this attraction – the elements that made it so out-of-place in the '80s and '90s – is now its strength. It's persevered long enough to go from outdated tourist trap of yesteryear to a living piece of nostalgia, locked into the Florida story and underscored by a retro-coolness. Its simplicity, optimism, and ease elevate it beyond its roadside origins. It's a genuine Florida gem.

Image: Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Weeki Wachee Springs is a wonder.

And if it has proven anything while weathering the ebbs and flows of pop culture over the last seventy years, it's that it's timeless. 

Now, we want to hear from you. Use the comments below to share your memories. Have you ever visited this hidden Florida oasis? What do you remember about this "city of mermaids?" Will you continue the tradition and share this enchanted Florida family attraction with your children?

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There are 2 comments.

If you'd like to read more about the history and cultural impact of Weeki Wachee, there's a whole chapter on it in my book "Swim Pretty!" https://www.amazon.com/Swim-Pretty-Spectacles-Performance-Americas-ebook...

This was an awesome article of a true Floridian hidden gem. I would love to see more articles like this. Silver Springs, Lion Country Safari, Gatorland, Suken Gardens and of course Cypress Gardens the original theme park, would all make great articles.

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