WEEKI WACHEE — The gift shop near the entrance to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is pretty much always jammed with visitors hunting down souvenirs commemorating their visit to Florida's famous mermaid capital. That's why Hernando County tourism coordinator Tammy Heon is so thrilled with her bureau's latest coup — a place to set up a long-anticipated west-side visitors information center.
The 10- by 14-foot office, not far from the attraction's entryway, is indeed a find in that it's costing Heon's department next to nothing to operate and will give the bureau direct access to the park's nearly 270,000 annual visitors.
"We're very excited to have the opportunity to be in a very visible location," Heon said. "We've been wanting to have a presence on this side of the county for a long time."
Heon said that like the bureau's main office at Cortez Boulevard and Interstate 75, the west-side center will be staffed seven days a week by full-time employees who will attend to regular office duties in addition to providing visitors with information about activities and things to do during their stay in the county. While the tourism bureau regularly stocks the attraction with informational brochures, she believes that visitors are better served by being able to talk with someone familiar with the area.
"Websites and brochures are fine, but my experience has been that there's no substitute for a smiling face that can answer their questions," Heon said.
She said she began lobbying state park officials more than a year ago to see what might be available for use as a tourist information center. The space being provided was formerly used as storage for the gift shop and is being offered rent-free in exchange for the bureau taking over the responsibility of printing the park's brochures.
Heon said statistics show that visitors average six to eight days during their stay in the county. While many businesses experience a slowdown during the summer months, that is not the case for those that deal in ecotourism-related activities such as kayaking, fishing and scalloping. With Weeki Wachee's peak period coming during the summer months, the bureau now has an opportunity to better promote those activities.
"Being located in the heart of one of the state's largest nature-oriented attractions is a huge advantage for us," Heon said. "And when people are looking for things to do with their families while they're here, we can point and tell them they're just a couple of miles away from the action."
Heon said that her plans for the satellite office include decorating it with examples of the area's natural habitat and activities, including preserved wildlife artifacts, a kayak model, fishing gear and other items.
"I want our presentation to be inviting and interesting to people who may have only come to see the mermaids and the springs, and show them that it's part of wonderful area that's fun to explore," she said.
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.