Where mermaids still swim
In the late 1940s, U.S. Highway 19 crept through the sleepy towns of West Florida. Barely a dot on the map, Hernando County was a crisscrossing of dirt roads where oak trees offered the only defense against the blazing temperatures. Every now and then, a Chevy Bel Air with northern plates would speed by, crammed with restless kids, borrowed luggage, and styrofoam coolers of bologna sandwiches. So eager would the passengers be to reach the coast, most would barely touch the brakes.
At the sound of an approaching car, a group of giggling girls would run toward the road dressed only in their bathing suits and smiles. They’d wave frantically at the passersby until the baffled drivers would eventually pull over. Their siren call was the brilliant marketing ploy of one of America’s first roadside attractions. This slice of Florida is where the legend of the Weeki Wachee mermaids began.
It was 1947 and Newt Perry had just opened the attraction. It had been a few years since he discovered what the Seminole Indians ironically called Little Spring, a cave system so deep its bottom has never been found. Back then the cavern was a dumping site for rusted-out refrigerators and abandoned cars, but the potential Perry saw was as clear as the water.
The theme park Perry eventually brought to life centered around a sandy-bottomed pool where a natural spring and a seven-mile river met. Carved from limestone, it was fitted with a glass wall to create a viewing theater so visitors could sit below the surface and observe the underwater “ballets.” The performers swam in spring waters 16 to 20 feet deep, often dodging fish, manatees, and the occasional alligator.
“The girls stayed underwater, thanks to an air hose my dad invented,” Delee Perry said. “He had been a Navy frogman before the days of the Seals, and he figured out you could breathe underwater from a hose that delivered oxygen from an air compressor.”
Without tanks strapped to their backs, the mermaids had the appearance of breathing naturally. Newt scouted pretty local girls and trained them to use the hoses while smiling at the same time. They entertained the crowds by drinking Grapette soda, eating bananas, and performing synchronized shows—all beneath the surface. For the northern tourists who frequently didn’t know how to swim, the combination of crystal clear water, sun-kissed girls, and underwater feats had quite the allure.
“In the beginning the girls shared an air hose,” Delee said. “They’d sneak quick breaths while doing complicated moves like the adagio, where one girl perched in the hand of another and tossed herself back in an elegant arch. They made difficult things look easy.”
At a time when women either married or went off to school, being a mermaid was novel.
“In the early days the girls were paid in leftover hotdogs and hamburgers,” Delee joked, “but before long they became famous on billboards, postcards, and even the big screen.”
The director of some 150 movie shorts, Newt knew something about showmanship. He was a consultant on the early Tarzan movies, played host to films such as “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid,” which shot at Weeki Wachee Springs, and was close friends with legendary characters such as P.T. Barnum.
“Dad had tons of charisma,” Delee recalls. “When a film crew once asked him what he could do underwater, he dove right in. The crew forgot to tell him the take was over, and by the time he surfaced, he’d set a world record for holding his breath underwater—and they had it on film.”
Now, 75 years later, many of the original roadside attractions have closed. Gone are the Mystery Fun House and the cowboys of the Six Gun Territory, the dolphin shows at Marineland, and the Southern bells from Cypress Gardens. There’s no denying the impact “the mouse” has had on the tourism landscape of Florida, and yet despite these changes, one quirky attraction remains.
Weeki Wachee Springs is now a Florida State Park centered around the deepest known freshwater cave system in the country. It features a seasonal water park, riverboat cruise, and a wild animal show. However, the centerpiece of the park is still the mermaid show, and it’s just as kitschy as ever.
Every January, girls line up for the chance to audition to be one of the iconic sirens. Maybe it’s the legend Newt created or the cartoons they saw as kids, a love of the water, or the stories told by mermaids of yesteryear, that keeps them lining up. It doesn’t really matter; I’m just glad something of Old Florida remains. Stop by and see for yourself. The girls are just as beautiful as ever and every bit as athletic. And chances are pretty good they can still sip a Grapette soda underwater.
8 Things to Do In and Around Weeki Wachee
Buccaneer Bay — Frolic in the cool waters of the Weeki Wachee Spring at this natural swimming hole with waterslides, a beach area and a lazy river ride.
Mermaid Trail — Grab a bike and go in search of the 28 artist-commissioned mermaid statues scattered throughout the area.
Scallop Diving — Hop aboard a boat at nearby Crystal River and let your captain ferry you off- shore to the scallop beds. Dive down about six feet and snag some tasty bay treats for dinner. Paddleboarding and Kayaking — The blue-green waters of Weeki Wachee State Park are ideal for water sports, so grab a paddle and head into this stunning natural landscape.
Pine Island Park — This colorful park on the Gulf of Mexico features a playground, food stand, volleyball court, grills, an observation point, and miles of white-sand beaches.
Homosassa Springs — The walking bridge that skirts the park is the ideal way to see countless manatees up close in the winter and spring months.
Tarpon Springs — This historic Greek fishing village is known for sponge diving, shopping, and incredible food. Don’t miss a chance to eat at family-run Hellas for some grub that’s even better than your ya-ya’s.
Sunsets at Bayport Park Pier — Take a boardwalk stroll for views of the evening sunset.