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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]
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