Who knew that for polarizing the people of Hernando County, an old roadside attraction could rival health care reform?
Well, I did — or hoped so — which is why I recently solicited comments from readers about Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Though I received several good suggestions about the future of the park — what could be done to better highlight its natural features, and how to make better use of these features for swimming, hiking or kayaking — the strongest opinions were about the mermaid show, which is most definitely part of Weeki Wachee's past. It's been around since 1947.
Specifically, readers weighed in on the question: Should the mermaid show, an artifact of the golden age of Florida attractions, have a place in a current state park?
Almost sounds like a referendum, doesn't it? And if I just tallied the results that way, mermaids were the clear winner: Ten readers favored keeping them, five would ditch them, and one respondent ignored the issue to bash the Buccaneer Bay water park as an "eyesore.''
The volume of votes isn't especially impressive, and, because of the small sample, this count probably isn't very telling.
No, the powerful feelings I refer to came through in the content of readers' telephone messages and e-mails, almost all of them several paragraphs long.
There were biting comments from the anti-mermaid camp.
The "pros'' differed with my previous remarks that the show was "tacky'' and "slightly sexist," but did so civilly, I'm glad to say. Several of them shared their memories of seeing the show as children. Others argued that the mermaids are a relic only in the best sense: a reminder of a vanished culture worth preserving.
The Florida Park Service will ultimately decide which side wins. But, in a way, there's another referendum taking place and this one isn't going quite as well for the mermaids, or Buccaneer Bay for that matter.
So far, park receipts — primarily the amount of money people are willing to pay to see these two main attractions — have fallen short of operation expenses since the state took over.
With that in mind, let's move on to some of the comments, edited for length:
"When we first moved into the area, I, like you, thought the mermaid show would be tacky, but saw it anyway. We were pleasantly surprised that, although it has a hint of old-Florida tacky, it is a show with athleticism, beauty, grace, guts. Everyone we have taken, from age 9 to age 79 has enjoyed it. It is our favorite place to take visitors. Perfect for our age in that you can do the whole park in a couple of hours.
John Seevers, Timber Pines
Weeki Wachee Springs and the mermaids are known throughout much of the country and on far-away shores. Can another landmark in Hernando County claim this?
The DEP, which runs the State Parks, has done much in a short time to shore up the facilities, and also lowered the admission price. With a minimal amount of land management, I could see eco-hiking trails, nature programs for schoolchildren, birding trails, removal of invasive species, perhaps even camping and picnic areas. Did I mention keeping the live mermaid show?
The parks along the Nature Coast are a fabulous view of my childhood Florida. Think about preserving and improving them instead of calling them tacky.
Lamar Sprouse, Weeki Wachee
We as a family have visited the park for about six years in a row and every time it's more beautiful. We enjoy walking, picnics and even celebrations at the park. We need more places like this one. Please take notice that this is about two hours from were we live and it's worth the trip.
Noemi Cruz, Frostproof
When I was a child growing up in Chicago in the late 1950s, I frequently watched commercials on TV about Weeki Wachee Springs, the home of the living mermaids. I was enchanted! When my parents purchased a home in the Forest Oaks subdivision of Spring Hill in 1985, I was stunned to learn that they would be living close to Weeki Wachee and my beloved mermaids. Of course, I visited the "girls" on my first visit to my parents' new home and have been back several times since then. My husband and I now live in DeLand. Our trips to Weeki Wachee are fewer, but my love for the attraction and the mermaids is still strong. I even have a mermaid ornament adorning our Christmas tree as I type this. I was thrilled when my special place became a state park because it evokes a different Florida than today's — a Florida before the massive theme parks and the sprawl, which I longed to visit as a child and still cherish. Keep the mermaids!
The most common comment I hear when discussing the park is "it hasn't changed since I was a kid." And that's meant in a positive way. My 5-year-old daughter, already fascinated by mermaids, completely enjoyed the show. Sure it's a bit cheesy but at least it's real — not a bunch of plastic and special effects. As for the sexist part — never crossed my mind. Sounds to me like you're trying to create a problem that doesn't exist.
I'm sure there are other issues — financial, management, etc. But for the most part, it seems to be working. Do we have to change everything?
Jeff Kensinger, Ridge Manor
I'd like to send a yellow submarine into the aqua theater to disturb the mermaid shows as flashing neon lights show a dazzling infomercial to make thoughtful changes for the park while blasting out flying, foil-wrapped smoked-mullet torpedoes for the viewers and staff. The gift message inside the free appetizers and the sub lights would holler "KEEP OUR MERMAIDS!"
Maurea Sleesman, Weeki Wachee
My suggestions do not exclude the Mermaid Theater or Buccaneer Bay. If self-supporting, they could remain as a separate feature or attraction. (But) I envision a Brooker Creek Preserve in Hernando County as part of the Weeki Wachee Spring State Park — a great model to emulate. Now add a native Florida wildlife theme (minus the manatee features) that has become so successful at the Homosassa park. I envision "wildlife" as all-inclusive, not just mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians but other lesser-known animals, and native plants as well.
Francesco B. Trama, Spring Hill
I fully agree with you about Weeki Wachee. I saw the mermaid show just once, years ago, and to me, it sure is tacky — especially now that Weeki Wachee is a state park. Come on, folks, this is a state park, not an amusement park. Nature should now be the big attraction.
Barbara Cleversey, Brooksville
Keep a place for kids to swim; ditch the mermaid shows, but put together a small museum-like tribute to them showing the history of the park. And a botanical garden would be nice. Other than that, let the park become more of a Florida nature-type place with educational displays of the indigenous animal life, the spring itself, and so on.
Dianna Shuniak, Sumter County
I think that the mermaids need to go. It's a 60-year-old attraction that is far out-dated. This is the year 2010 we're working on. We should keep the beauty of the area as a botanical garden.
I have also watched the mermaid show and to me it's boring because it is always the same show. It is great that Hernando County has such a beautiful spring and that we have the ability to put on shows. The park needs to put on more and better water shows, continuously changing the shows (and not always being the mermaids)…
The tiki bar area should be opened again at night for adults to go, listen to music, having fun in the moonlight, and a bonfire once in a while would be awesome!!!!