Weeki Wachee Celebrates 75 Years Of Mermaids

The mermaids are still the main attractions at the state park.

<p>Courtesy of Florida State Parks</p> New Perry with Weeki Wachee Mermaids.

Courtesy of Florida State Parks

New Perry with Weeki Wachee Mermaids.

Before I-75 traversed the Sunshine State from north to south, and before a mouse and wizards  arrived in Orlando, a roadside attraction along U.S.-19 allured passers by with a different out-of-this-world experience: mermaids.

Weeki Wachee in central west Florida was named by the Seminole Indians, and means "little spring" or "winding river." More than 117 million gallons of fresh, clear, 74-degree water flow daily, just has it has for ages.

In 1946, Newton Perry, a former member of the U.S. Navy who trained Navy Frogmen to swim underwater in World War II, came upon Weeki Wachee and had an idea for a business. After he cleared the spring of haphazardly discarded debris, he developed an underwater breathing system using an air hose and compressor instead of a tank to give the impression of people breathing effortlessly underwater. Next, he built an 18-seat theater into limestone, submerged six feet below the water’s surface, so an audience could look right into the crystal clear water.

Next, he looked for mermaids.

<p>Courtesy of Florida State Parks</p>

Courtesy of Florida State Parks

Mermaids Were Born

Dianne Wyatt McDonald, 92, was a senior at St. Petersburg High School in the late 1940s and had joined her school's swim team at the start of the school year. Until she saw a note about a call for synchronized swimmers, that is.

“About two or three days after school started I saw a note from The Spa (an indoor saltwater pool in St. Pete) that said any girl that would like to become a synchronized swimmer to come down,” McDonald tells Southern Living. “We had to show them a few things we could do in order to be on the team, and we all made it."

<p>Courtesy of Dianne&#39;s daughter Debbie McDonald</p> The first postcard in color of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Dianne is third from the right.

Courtesy of Dianne's daughter Debbie McDonald

The first postcard in color of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Dianne is third from the right.

"I always wanted to be like Esther Williams,” says McDonald. “And that’s the kind of swimming we did. It was just wonderful.”

The Aquabelles, by which McDonald and her synchronized swimming team were known, caught the attention of Perry.

"Perry happened to hear about us, and that's why he invited us up to put on a show," says McDonald. That first performance was on October 13, 1947.

“We put a 45-minute synchronized swimming show for him,” she says of the first show. “And when it was over, he said, ‘Girls, that was beautiful, but that is not what I need. I need underwater swimming.’ We told him that we'd be back the following week, and we would be doing an underwater show."

McDonald recalls that the following week she and another girl on the synchronized team got together and drew stick figures of different poses to do underwater. They also trained to hold their breath underwater for up to a minute and 30 seconds at at time.

“Our director liked the one [pose] so well he would have one girl and I, Mary Dwight Rose, her name was, do the pose at the end of every show after we’d go back up to Weeki Wachee,” she recalls. “He just thought the pose was beautiful, and then I guess Newt Perry decided he liked the pose, too, and the next thing you know they’re making a statue of it.”

The pose that McDonald and Rose created is known as the adagio, and the statue still stands outside the entrance of Weeki Wachee today.

<p>Courtesy of Florida State Parks</p> A postcard of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids in 1966 in front of the statue

Courtesy of Florida State Parks

A postcard of the Weeki Wachee Mermaids in 1966 in front of the statue

Claudia R. Buzby of Madison, Alabama, remembers visiting Weeki Wachee with her grandmother on a roadtrip from her hometown of Thomasville, Georgia to Lakeland in the early 1960s. She was a teenager and vividly remembers her visit.

“It was a magical experience,” recalls Buzby. “It was like seeing Esther Williams, the mermaids were so graceful.”

In 1956, the American Broadcast Co. (ABC) bought Weeki Wachee and built a new, 400-seat theater in which today’s audiences still watch the mermaid shows. In its heyday, mermaids performed eight shows a day, and as many as half a million people traveled annually to Weeki Wachee to see the mermaids, including Elvis Presley, Don Knotts, and Esther Williams herself. Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida Parks Service in 2008.

Introducing the Mermaid Tail Trail

In celebration of 75 years of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and its mermaid shows, in January the park unveiled 28 mermaid statues that were hand-painted by juried artists. Twenty-six of the statues can be found on the brand new, public art Mermaid Tale Trail that winds through Hernando County. One statue named “The Spring” remains at Weeki Wachee, and another can be seen at the Visit Florida I-75 Welcome Center in Jennings, Florida.

McDonald was on-hand for the statues’ unveiling.

<p>Courtesy of Florida&#39;s Adventure Coast</p>

Courtesy of Florida's Adventure Coast

“The statues are beautiful,” she says. “They had 24 of them, 12 lined up on one side of the sidewalk and 12 lined up on the other. It was the most beautiful sight I think I ever saw. They’re absolutely gorgeous.”

Unsurprisingly, McDonald watched the mermaid show when she was at the park last month, too.

<p>courtesy of Dianne&#39;s daughter Debbie McDonald</p> Dianne McDonald with Weeki Wachee Mermaids doing the Andagio Pose behind her

courtesy of Dianne's daughter Debbie McDonald

Dianne McDonald with Weeki Wachee Mermaids doing the Andagio Pose behind her

“I love to see the show and see the girls,” says McDonald. “They all use their hoses now and fancy tails and the whole works.”

And when the mermaids recreated the adagio pose she created 75 years ago as they do in each performance, McDonald’s face lit up. 

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