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A Mermaid's Tale performing at florida's oldest roadside attraction

by Rebecca Burton

Photos by Rebecca Burton, Florida Memory, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

Step into the submerged, 400-seat theater at Weeki Wachee Springs State park and prepare to be amazed, or at least amused. Though it may be intentionally kitchy and reminiscent of “Old Florida,” it’s still the only of its kind to use one of the state’s 33 first magnitude springs as an underwater stage for the park’s world-famous mermaids.

The park is located just two hours across Central Florida from Disney World--across miles of swam and farmland. Situated on U.S. 19, the tiny town of Weeki Wachee is neighbored by strip malls, gas stations and grocery stores.

Weeki Wachee’s head spring is 117 feet deep and the seven-mile Weeki Wachee River that it feeds pumps out more than 100 million gallons of freshwater into the Gulf of Mexico daily.

When the state of Florida took over the financially starving park in 2008, its priorities were to preserve an ailing spring.

But, to the locals and former performers in the area--the mermaids had to stay. They were part of the draw.

Current mermaid and Florida native Taylor Kane, who is wrapping up a four-year stint as a mermaid, believes the show has the ability to inspire a different audience, one that isn’t currently in tune with the problems facing Florida’s springs, like nutrient runoff and the state’s growing population.

”I hope that the more people see how beautiful these springs are,” she said, “that it will make them want to protect them.”

From Aquabelles to Mermaids and the Arrival of Disney World

In 1947, Newt Perry, a former Hollywood stuntman and U.S. Navyman who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, began clearing out old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars from the bottom of the spring. He built the Newton Perry Underwater 18-seat Theater directly into the limestone. He installed two airlocks into the base and started to test the breathing tubes that are still used by today’s mermaids.

Back then, the women, who were mostly local waitresses and high school students, were deemed “Aquabelles.” They didn’t dawn tails, and the show resembled more of an underwater ballet, a synchronized swimming routine. The first mermaids were not paid. They traded their work for free meals, which were part of a "strict mermaid diet," swimsuits and fame.

The American Broadcasting Company purchased the park in 1959 and began paying the performers a small salary and a dorm room for $25 a month. The mermaids hosted nine shows a day, compared to today’s two. The 35 jobs were coveted for the local women in the community.

The park’s heydey began to fade in 1971, not coincidentally, with the arrival of Disney World. At first, tourists would only spend a day or two at Disney, and then travel the other attractions around Central Florida. But, after more and more super-theme parks were built, visitors began to set up camp solely in Orlando.

When you visit the park today, you will be greeted by mermaids lip syncing to the signature song, “We’ve Got the World By Tail,” a song which is meant to evoke a feeling of “Old Florida," a period from the 1940s-70s, that is considered to be the height of Florida’s tourism boom.

"We’re not like other women fighting traffic on the shore |Tired of going shopping |Living lives that are a bore. |Don’t have to do the cooking, hardly ever catch a cold. |Don’t know how to clean an oven and we never will grow old. |We’ve got the world by the tail. " Opening song from “The Little Mermaid” at Weeki Wachee, 2005

Ironically the song was written in 1991 and meant to remind Floridians about the charm of weird roadside attractions.

By 2003, Weeki Wachee Springs was close to failure. The city started a “Save our Tails,” campaign out of desperation. Just a year earlier, the park tried to regain some of its fame by bringing Paris Hilton and Nicole Ritchey to film the “Simple Life 2.”

The park has since been deemed one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions, bringing people from all over the world to bare witness to the mythical creatures as well as the seven-mile long crystal clear Weeki Wachee River. The freshwater cave system that sits beneath the springs is the deepest in the U.S.

The Lure of Sirens from the Deep and Their Role in Feminism

Early sightings of “mermaids” by sailors and fishermen were said to resemble more of a female manatee. In the 1800s, P.T. Barnum, founder of the Barnum and Bailey circus, showcased a mermaid in his American museum. Although patrons were promised beauty, they were greeted by a creature that was half monkey, half shark.

In 1941, just six years before the opening of Weeki Wachee, Esther Williams had become the iconic image of “The Million Dollar Mermaid.”

“The culture of late capitalism has seen the spread of commodification into perhaps the last two available domains—the unconscious (pornography, psychotherapy, fantasy) and nature (wilderness parks, zoos, and anthropology),” sociologist Steven Fjelmen said.

Williams, a champion swimmer was the perfect combination of the two.

“When Weeki Wachee opened in 1947, the mermaids picked up the threads of novelty, female beauty, athleticism, and domestication that the Feejee Mermaid and Esther Williams had perpetuated,” says Jennifer Kokai, an assistant professor of theater at Weber State University.

But for Barbara Wynns, a former mermaid who performed in the 60s and 70s, mermaids are sexualized and desexualized at the same time, making them a relatable role model to women.

“They make a good symbol for a lot of women who are trying to negotiate being strong, but still accessible and lovable,” Wynns told the New York Times in 2013.

Today she runs the “Sirens of the Deep” camp to help women of all ages and sizes “find their inner mermaid.”

However, today's mermaids still complain about Ariel getting married at 15 in the show.

Being a mermaid today

Mermaid Taylor Kane

Taylor Kane first decided she wanted to be a mermaid when she was 6 years old after seeing the show. Growing up in the area, she would often pass by the park. When she was 17, she read the marquee’s call of auditions. After two auditions, Kane made the roster. (Today the mermaids are state employees and paid between $10 and $13 an hour.)

This was no easy feat. To be a mermaid today, you must be scuba certified, a strong swimmer and have the ability to breathe from the tubes, which are much different than a normal scuba regulator.

“It was really tough,” Kane said. “It was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be.”

Today, she is the park’s second-longest serving mermaid and she has no regrets. Come May, Kane will be turning in her fishtail for her bachelor’s degree in marine biology from the University of South Florida.

She decided to pursue the degree after swimming with sharks during one of the mermaids’ aquarium tours around the U.S.

She enjoyed this experience so much that she geared her research toward the sharp-tooth predators. Last year, she interned with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration conducting shark surveys.

She believes her role as a mermaid has been to inspire young girls who see the show. And she has. Last year, she received “Tail Mail” from a young girl who had read Kane’s bio, which talked about her dream of becoming a marine biologist.

“I want to be a marine biologist too,” the letter read.

Visiting the Park Today

Today, the park entrance of just $13 includes the mermaid show, a river cruise and entrance into Bucaneer Bay, a waterpark that empties into the headspring.

Visit www.weekiwachee.com for park information, hours and show times.

Sources: The Last Mermaid Show, by Virginia Sole Smith, The New York Times

Weeki Wachee Girls and Buccaneer Boys The Evolution of Mermaids, Gender, and “Man versus Nature” Tourism by Jennifer A. Kokai

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