Make us your home page
Instagram

Clear water, mermaids and, yes, history, at Weeki Wachee Springs

Old places and things can sometimes age in reverse.

They grow more vital as the years pass, as their claim to history becomes more secure. People start talking less about how dated and down-at-the-heels they are and more about the prime cultural real estate they once occupied.

Maybe that's what is happening with Weeki Wachee Springs and its mermaid attraction.

Twice since May, the mermaids have been featured in big-name national publications. Though it's true National Geographic's large photograph of a Weeki Wachee mermaid three months ago was meant to underscore the tragedy of nitrogen pollution, it wouldn't seem like a tragedy if the spring and the mermaid show weren't national landmarks.

And there was no such mixed message in a seven-page spread in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine, which included this description of the moment the curtain rises on the mermaids:

"We could see the sun shining into the spring, which stretched endlessly before us, stunning and turquoise."

Pollution? What pollution?

The story included some expected big-city slaps at our small county, with its Hooters and Applebee's, its pawn shops and thrift stores. But this was meant mainly to contrast Weeki Wachee with glitzy Orlando, and that city's corporate theme parks with our quaint, somewhat magical mermaid attraction, where, according to the story's secondary headline, "an endangered species is practicing the old secrets of the deep."

Pretty corny, I thought, for of a show featuring clumsy costumes and primitive breathing hoses, one that takes place against a backdrop of nitrogen-fed, gray-green algae and is viewed from a dank theater as empty as the seats at Tropicana Field.

That, at least, is what I remembered from my visit five years ago, shortly after the attraction had become part of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and when its most notable recent national exposure was as the setting for a reality show episode featuring Paris Hilton.

It shouldn't be a park, I thought at the time. Parks are for nature, for real creatures, not fake ones.

But parks are also for drawing tourists and preserving "cultural significance," which is the purpose of Weeki Wachee, a spokesman for the state system wrote to me in an email.

Proving his point are attendance figures that show a Benjamin Button-type trend at the attraction, which opened in 1947 — a senior citizen getting stronger with time.

In fiscal year 2009-10, the attraction's first full year as a state park, attendance was 147,145. In 2011-12, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the number had climbed by nearly 50,000.

Because the park's $13 admission fee gives patrons access to the entire park, including the Buccaneer Bay water park, there's no way to know exactly how many people took in the mermaid show.

But it is clear that gate receipts come very close to covering the park's $1.7 million in annual operating expenses and that mermaids are a big part of the draw.

Increased demand recently forced the park to expand the number of daily mermaid shows to four from three. The one I attended, on a return visit Tuesday afternoon, was packed.

The theater could still use some sprucing up. But it has obviously received some since my last visit. It's cleaner, less mildewed. It no longer seemed dank.

Yes, there is algae on the rocks in the spring basin, but not enough to ruin the sight of marvelously clear water that did in fact have a slight turquoise hue.

And maybe because the fakery at modern parks has become more and more polished, the old-fashioned fakery of hoses and the tails struck me as less clunky than quaint.

During the attraction's heyday, of course, it was neither of those things. The people on these same benches considered it amazing, spectacular.

Think of that — how much entertainment and our expectations for it have changed over the past 50 years — and, yes, it seems like history.

More online

Read the The Last Mermaid Show published in the New York Times Magazine.

Clear water, mermaids and, yes, history, at Weeki Wachee Springs 07/12/13 [Last modified: Friday, July 12, 2013 6:35pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Starbucks to close all Teavana locations, including five in Tampa Bay

    Retail

    Local Teavana locations include Tyrone Square in St. Petersburg, International Plaza and Westfield Citrus Park in Tampa, Brandon and Clearwater.

    Starbucks announced Thursday plans to shut down all 379 Teavana stores, citing "underperformance." Starbucks acquired the mall-based tea chain for $620 million in 2012. [ CANDICE CHOI | AP file photo]
  2. Trigaux: Closing Iron Yard coding school hits area tech hard but leaders talk of options

    Business

    The coming shutdown this fall of the Iron Yard software coding school in downtown St. Petersburg — announced this month as part of a national closing of all 15 Iron Yard locations — remains a shocking event to a Tampa Bay technology community that dreams big of becoming a major player in the Southeast if not …

    In better days last fall, friends and family of graduates at The Iron Yard, based in the Station House in downtown St. Petersburg, applaud during "Demo Day" when grads of the coding school show off their skills. Despite the local success and strong job placement by the coding school, The Iron Yard is closing all of its 15 locations across the country this summer. [LARA CERRI   |   Times]
  3. U.S. economy gathers steam in second quarter

    Business

    WASHINGTON — The U.S. economy revved up this spring after a weak start to the year, fueled by strong consumer spending. But the growth spurt still fell short of the optimistic goals President Donald Trump hopes to achieve through tax cuts and regulatory relief.

    A government report released Friday showed economic output picked up in the second quarter. 
[Associated Press file photo]
  4. Founder of Tampa home sharing platform questions Airbnb, NAACP partnership

    Business

    TAMPA — A Tampa rival to Airbnb, which was launched because of discrimination complaints on the dominant home sharing platform, has concerns about the new partnership between Airbnb and NAACP announced this week.

    Rohan Gilkes poses for a portrait at his home and business headquarters in Tampa. 

Innclusive, a Tampa-based start-up, is a home-sharing platform that focuses on providing a positive traveling experience for minorities. [CHARLIE KAIJO | Times]
  5. Appointments at Port Tampa Bay and Tampa General Medical Group highlight this week's Tampa Bay business Movers & Shakers

    Business

    Government

    Port Tampa Bay announced that Jamal Sowell has been named director of special projects. Sowell, a former member of the U.S.Marine Corps, will support internal, external and special projects, assist the executive team with management oversight and serve as a liaison on a variety of port …

    Port Tampa Bay announced this week that Jamal Sowell has been named director of special projects. [Handout photo]