Between sixteen to twenty feet below the surface of a natural spring named “Weeki Wachee” in central Florida—off the side of US 19—mermaids swim. These mermaids have been there, swimming, flipping, dancing, putting on lipstick, and drinking Grapette, since 1947—when a Navy man named Newton Perry had a stroke of genius.
And they are still there today.
Watch this video of the Mermaids of Weeki Wachi Springs
The fascinating history of the Mermaids of Weeki Wachi
Perry found Weeki Wachee off the side of the then-two-laned road. He and Ricou Browning (the man who played the Creature from the Black Lagoon) cleared the natural spring of its rusted out refrigerators, bed frames, and abandoned cars.
During the Second World War, Perry had trained “Navy Frogmen” to breathe underwater from an air hose attached to an air compressor, which freed the divers from having to carry an oxygen tank strapped to their backs. It was scuba diving in its prototype phase, and these military swimmers were helping it to grow up. One writer called the hoses, “swimmers’ filling stations.”
Perry decided to capitalize on this skill of breathing underwater by training beautiful women to perform there as “mermaids," so he carved an 18-seat theater into the spring's limestone to create an aquarium-style viewing experience. Together with Browning, he began scouting pretty girls to train into mermaids. And there was never a shortage of girls who wanted to become mermaids. Like Jill Roddis (who worked at the park for two decades) said, “Every little girl wants to be a mermaid, doesn’t she?”
These mermaids later stated that they were so far underwater and the air pressure was so weak that sometimes they had to bite the end of the air hose closed to let the air gather, and then they could get a breath before returning to their performance.
The synchronized mermaid ballet was a show not to be missed, but there wasn’t much traffic along US-19 at the time. When the trained mermaid performers heard a car coming, they’d run “to the road in their bathing suits, just like sirens of ancient lore lured sailors to their sides. Then they jumped into the spring to perform.”
By the 1950s, Weeki Wachee was one of America’s most popular tourist stops. Newt Perry is quoted as saying, “Many people said I was crazy when I told them I could present floor shows, ballets and the like underwater,” and people always had a hard time believing what they were seeing… scuba was still growing in popularity, and many of the mermaids of Weeki Wachee have stories about audience members who thought the show was fake.
It was such a sensation that in 1959, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) bought the park and promoted it heavily.
When ABC bought the park, they implemented themes for the underwater shows, like the Underwater Circus and the Underwater Follies, and with their funding also came props. Some of them were even designed by Max Weldy of the Ringling Brothers Circus. Some notable props were the huge swing set sunk into the spring, a table for an underwater picnic, and a Thanksgiving dinner.
Music arrived shortly after—and it was sometimes played on a record player under the water of the spring, as well. Lauretta Jefferson came on as the first choreographer, and because of her background at Ringling Brothers, many circus acts appeared in that first show, including the Strong Man act and the tightrope act… all of which took place underwater, of course.
In Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography by Lu Vickers and Bonnie Georgiadis (a must-see book for anyone with the vaguest interest in this topic) says that the “otherworldly images of women surrounded by fish while hula dancing or eating bananas or playing football underwater are so wholly original that they almost do seem faked.”
When Marilyn Nagle Cloutier joined in the production is when the costuming leveled up. In fact, up until this time, the performers rarely wore tails. One Weeki Wachee mermaid, Bonnie Georgiadis, said that the first tail had a bib that connected around the swimmers’ necks, but later, it was replaced with a zippered tail that fitted to their waists. And there was only one “tail in house” at first. It was made of a canvas, which they then handstitched on the metallic blue and green sequins. The tail would last about a month before needing to be repaired or even replaced.
Nickel postcards depicting the majestic shows were the highest-selling merchandise at Weeki Wachee—sometimes the park sold as many as $100 of them in a day. It was a time in America when everyone wanted to send their friends postcards of their travels, and an authentic photograph of a mermaid posing underwater was a hot one.
Stars as famous as Don Knotts, Esther Williams, and Elvis Presley visited Weeki Wachee. The Weeki Wachee mermaids only decreased in fame when Walt Disney World was built in Orlando in 1971, as tourists gradually flocked there instead of spring-side.
Weeki Wachee Mermaids Today
Weeki Wachee still exists, though. You can see the mermaid show at Weeki Wachee at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m., and 3 p.m. on weekends.
So if you find yourself driving down US-19, keep an eye out for the sirens… maybe you should follow them underwater, despite what the myths say.