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Florida Travel Meet the mermaids

November 25, 2018

Mermaids. To most, simply storybook sea ladies, mere mythical water witches who are imaginary fantasies of the sea.

Imaginary? Not at all at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Spring Hill, just outside Tampa, Fla. There, mesmerizing sirens with tails are very much alive, well and swimming, providing an under-the-sea experience that is as magical as the legend of the water nymphs.

“It’s hard not to believe in mermaids after you see them,” says veteran marketing director John Athanason about the show that opened 70 years ago. “When you see children’s faces pressed up against the theater glass as they watch the show, just look into their eyes. They believe.”

It was Newton “Newt” Perry, a U. S. Navy WWII frogman, who dug a “stage” into the touted natural spring’s limestone. He then scouted out a bevy of pretty girls and taught them how to simultaneously do ballet as they swam using air hoses. He installed an 18-seat theater, offering the audience an underwater view of the of the show. A rural area at the time featuring swamps, alligators and little else, he put out a sign in 1947 and Weeki Wachee was born.

The centerpiece of the now state park is the mermaid show and all the activities that come with it. Billed as the only “city of live mermaids,” there are several shows a day featuring the mermaids and their routines, as well as meet-and-greets and photo opps with the ladies with tails. The show includes underwater synchronized swimming as well as some of the trademark tricks of the underwater trade, drinking a full bottle of soda, swimming with the sea life and seemingly doing it all without air for an inordinate amount of time.

I sat upon a promontory,

And heard a mermaid, on a dolphin’s back,

Uttering such dulcet and harmonious breath,

That the rude sea grew civil at her song;

And certain stars shot madly from their spheres,

To hear the sea-maid’s music.

— William Shakespeare

“The training is pretty intense,” says mermaid Taylor Sekulski. “You have to be scuba-certified, be able to tread water for 10 minutes, CPR-certified, learn how to use the air hoses and be able to do the underwater routines.”

A nursing school student, who like many of the Mermaids of Weeki Wachee is in her 20s, Sekulski admits that while it’s not a permanent career path, the job of mermaid is one she proudly brags about and enjoys.

“It’s just cool to be yourself, to tap into your creativity and your personality and make something that is make-believe real, especially to the kids,” she says about the fantasy she helps create.

Besides the mermaid shows, there are themed events, including the annual Mermaid Calendar unveiling, featuring the 12 decked-out mermaid calendar girls in their pools, ready and waiting to sign autographs and pose for pictures. They even answer “tail mail” to those who prefer the internet.

But there was much more on a recent trip to meet those legendary mermaids. There is a wildlife show, with alligators and exotic birds. The river boat cruise there offers a chance to see bald eagles, herons, cooter turtles and if you are lucky, West Indian manatees. Buccaneer Bay features a beach, waterslides, flumes, snorkeling and the Caribbean Cove for toddlers. There is kayaking and concessions, picnic areas and camping, all designed to take advantage of the constantly cycling spring water and the 200-acre park.

“The mermaid thing has become an industry onto itself, especially for the past seven or eight years,” says Athanason, alluding to a renewed pop culture that promotes fanciful characters like mermaids and unicorns.

Guests to the park have included swimming icon Esther Williams and Elvis Presley. The park has also been used in movies including “Neptune’s Daughter” and “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid.”

But the core of the attraction is not just the fun and frivolity and fantasy, but the fact that the spring is a natural environmental wonder.

“The park will be getting a bit of face lift over the winter, but nothing that is natural is going to be disturbed,” says Athanason, explaining the three-month plan. The shows will be on hiatus while work progresses, and Tampa is in its low season in winter anyway, so it’s best wait for spring break to take the kids.

At Weeki Wachee, once a mermaid, always a mermaid as evidenced by its other corps of underwater sprites, “The Legends of Weeki Wachee.” This show is cast with veteran mermaids who performed in the 1950s and ’60s and continue to do so, tails and all.

“Stand up straight and throw out your hip and bend your knees,” the “senior” mermaids explains as they demonstrate that signature “standing mermaid” look, featured when the gals line up for publicity photos. “That’s exactly right,” says legend Suzie Pennoyer as I strike my posture-challenged “mermaid” pose with the rest of the ladies outside the pool.

The legends reunited to celebrate the park’s 70th anniversary two years ago, but they proved so popular that they now perform each weekend.

“I started in 1957 when I was 17,” says now nearly-80 year old Vicki Smith, who can be found in the water there on Saturdays and Sundays. “I left to raise my family and ended up coming back.”

Smith, along with her other legends, agrees that they can do far more in the water than they can on land when it comes to flexibility, and the added bonus is the exercise from the swimming the natural minerals they absorb from the spring water.

“When you go into that water you are 17 again,” says Smith. “I think being a mermaid is what keeps us young”

The now great-grandmother, who admits the kids are a little extra preoccupied with being mermaids themselves, says when she started performing 60-plus years ago, it was a little less glitzy and lot less prestigious.

“I remember when I applied for my job at Proctor and Gamble I put down that I was a professional swimmer,” she says, recalling her days as a sales representative there.

“Now, I would put mermaid,” she laughs. “That sounds pretty good.”

“It is like being a movie star even though you are just a regular person,” adds Cheyenne Bragg, 22, who was Miss July Mermaid in a calendar and has been a mermaid for four years. The mother of a 6-month-old, the full-time college student said the job lets her be “amazing” even though she is “just normal.”

“There is something about knowing that the people watching you are just in awe of what you are doing,” she says. “It’s magic.”

And as far as the future when it comes to future “mermaid-dom” for her daughter?

“Oh yes,” she exclaims. ”She will be a mermaid, too.”

Visit weekiwachee.com.

MaryEllen Fillo is a freelance writer based in Connecticut.

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