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Weeki Wachee mermaids: tacky or magic? Let public decide

I've never cared for the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs.

The idea of turning the county's most stunning natural feature into a tourist attraction has always seemed offensive, like running a roller coaster up and down the walls of the Grand Canyon.

Even 15 years ago, when I got around to seeing my first show, the whole place looked neglected and dated: weedy flower beds, dank amphitheater, performers in cumbersome tails struggling to hold their breath long enough to make it to the nearest air hose.

I didn't see kitsch, which attraction spokesman John Athanason defined as "tacky in a nice way.''

I just saw tacky, as did the Encyclopedia of Bad Taste, which included an entry for the Weeki Wachee mermaids between " 'wax museums' and 'Welk, Lawrence,' " according to a 1990 Hernando Times story on the book's release.

So the best path seemed clear last year when plans were announced to create a state park at Weeki Wachee:

Get rid of the mermaids. Restore the spring's beauty as much as possible and expand the swimming area to fill a dire need in Hernando County.

After all, isn't that what parks are supposed to be about? Preserving and enjoying nature?

That's true of Florida's best known converted attraction, Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, where the main draw is displays of native animals, not young women in halter tops.

It's certainly true of another formerly private refuge: Rainbow Springs State Park, now a pristine swimming hole.

But the more I thought about it, I realized it could never be true of Weeki Wachee.

While Rainbow is set in a bowl of grass and forest, Weeki Wachee is next to a parking lot on U.S. 19. The state can't very well expand the swimming area into the dangerous, deep water where the mermaids now perform.

And no matter how mystifying this is to me, people seem to love mermaids.

Local business owners showed this in recent years when they donated labor and materials to help the attraction's owner, the city of Weeki Wachee, work through $1-million in repairs required by its landlord, the Southwest Florida Water Management District

So did the 30 spectators who made it to the 11 a.m. show Monday. So did my wife, who tried to dissuade me from writing this column.

So did Athanason.

"This is part of Florida's history,'' he said. "We've created a lot of wonderful memories.''

The best thing about the agreement reached last week in the state Legislature (and awaiting the signature of Gov. Charlie Crist) is that the public will be the judge of Weeki Wachee's cultural merits.

Athanason said the attraction has recovered from the neglect of its previous owner and is now making rather than losing money; the state Department of Environmental Protection's plan to preserve the attraction as a park hinges on whether the financial ledger proves it can sustain itself.

So, is the mermaid show appealingly old-fashioned or just old? Is it a humorous nod to the state's history of building tasteless attractions or just tasteless?

Is it really, as some members of the audience called it Monday, "magic?''

Well, if enough people are willing to pay to see it, I guess it is.

Weeki Wachee mermaids: tacky or magic? Let public decide 05/06/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 7, 2008 3:47pm]
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