WEEKI WACHEE — The huddle of little mermaids waiting to perform didn't know an alligator was loose in the water.
Probably just as well.
The pre-teen girls, some softly sobbing, others pale, were nervous enough already. Minutes ticked by.
As the audience waited for the Weeki Wachee Mermaid's 3:30 p.m. show in the cool concrete of the Underwater Theater, lifeguards evacuated Buccaneer Bay to chase away the 3-foot gator lurking in the shallows.
But the girls could handle the half-hour wait. Some had waited months, even years, for their mermaid debuts.
"Ever since I found out about it, I kept saying, 'I want to go be a mermaid! I want to go to mermaid camp!' " said Lea Hunt, 7, whose mother drove her 400 miles from Pensacola.
For almost a decade, Weeki Wachee has offered summer "mermaid camps" for kids —almost always girls — ages 7-10 and 11-14. The two-day camp showcases what it takes to become one of Weeki Wachee's famous mermaids, from mermaid makeup and glittery tails to underwater shows.
Last weekend, during the first session of the summer, girls came as far as Pensacola and Gainesville to play mermaid with real Weeki Wachee mermaids Sarah Ferguson and Shannon Tooker, both 21.
Today marks the last day of the summer's second session. The five remaining sessions have already sold out.
"It gives little girls the chance to be something they've dreamed about," mermaid Stacey McConnell said. "It's so cute to see how excited they get."
Izzy Hunt said Lea has wanted to be a mermaid for more than a year. She adds tails to her self-portraits and even calls herself "Lea No-Fins."
"She hasn't been able to stop talking about this since we went to Weeki Wachee last year," Hunt said. "All I've been hearing is, 'Mermaid camp! Mermaid camp! Mermaid camp!' "
Others were equally excited, but that didn't stop the girls from being pale with nerves. Tooker and Ferguson played games with them as they waited for the park's princes to drive the alligator farther north in the spring.
Gator scares are rare: Mermaid Lauren Dodson, 21, said this is the second in five years.
"Perfect timing for these girls' first show, right?" Dodson said.
The alligator all-clear came more than 20 minutes after the show's scheduled start time. The girls walked in a line to the rickety dock jutting into the spring.
Some of the girls teared up as they waited to leap into the water.
"You know girls, I still get nervous for my shows, too," said Tyler Razey, one of the park's princes. "But you just gotta push right through it. You'll be great."
The girls jumped off the rickety dock and doggy-paddled through the spring, some of them floating on Ferguson's lifeguard tube, to the outside of the theater windows.
The gathered curtain slowly rose, washing the bowl-like theater in a cool blue light.
As the opening twangs of Miley Cyrus' Party in the USA blasted through the speakers, the rising curtain revealed 10 pairs of feet — no tails — furiously treading water.
The girls blew kisses and attempted synchronized flips, accidentally kicking a turtle and a school of fish swimming by in the spring.
All good reminders, Dodson said, that the spring is entirely natural.
"It's easy to forget that we're not swimming in a big pool, especially for the little girls, because our water is so clean," Dodson said.
After the show, a concerned little brother who hadn't seen any mermen or princes in the Mermaid Camp show asked McConnell if he could attend when he turned 7.
"Don't worry, we can make you into a prince!" Terry said.
Lea "No-Fins" Hunt was the first 2010 camper to graduate from Mermaid Camp, in a ceremony that took place after the regularly scheduled performance of The Little Mermaid.
Ferguson presented each girl with a Mermaid Camp diploma and a stack of photos from their mermaid photo shoot, showing each girl wearing a tail and glittery mermaid makeup in swirls across her face.
After the ceremony, Izzy Hunt hugged her daughter.
"Now you don't have to be Lea No-Fins! You're finally a mermaid!"
Laura J. Nelson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1432.