WEEKI WACHEE — There are many people in the community who feel a kinship and protectiveness toward the natural jewel called the Weeki Wachee Springs.
Now they can formalize those feelings.
Efforts are under way to create a Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park Citizens Support Organization, volunteers who will enhance programming, activities and educational opportunities for visitors as well as promote conservation at the springs.
"Every state park has a friends group," said John Athanason, the park's marketing manager. "Here's an opportunity now for people to support their community state park."
Gate receipts, he explained, go into a general fund for all 160 state parks. But money raised by a friends group stays within that particular park to be used for amenities that the state park system can't afford.
The new volunteers also will arrange activities to attract visitors and to improve conditions at the 63-year-old former tourist attraction, which is now a state park under the direction of the Florida Department of Environmental Protection.
One of those events will be on Saturday: a community yard sale in the parking lot from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Advance registration is today and Friday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. with a $20 cash donation collected at the park's front gate.
The Friends recently elected a president, Emilio "Sonny" Vergara, who as a former executive director of the Southwest Florida Water Management District brings a wealth of knowledge of the attraction and water issues to the 14-member board of directors.
Also count him among those with personal connections to the park. At age 14, he worked as a basket boy for swimmers at the pool, his mother had a job in the gift shop and his sister became a mermaid.
"The springs needs tender loving care," Vergara said. "We want to spruce up the springs and return it to its natural context."
Plans are also being made for a Hernando County Showcase that will feature area restaurants, businesses and local attractions.
And, of course, there are also the park's most famous attractions: the beautiful mermaids. There are plenty of plans being hatched for these famous swimmers.
"We're thinking of an adult mermaid camp for adults who have always had an aspiration of becoming a mermaid," said Athanason. Weekend camps for youngsters have long been offered in summertime.
In a related matter, several of the mermaids soon will be heading to London on a goodwill mission, Athanason said.
"Sometimes it's not enough to let the public come to you," he said. "The UK is the second largest visitor to Florida. You want to get these people before they plan their vacation. We want them to know before they arrive to come to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.''
The mermaids' international debut May 15 and 16 is being financed wholly by Sealife Aquarium in London. "It's at no cost to us at all," Athanason said, "and we have a promotional value of maybe $1 million."
Park officials see over-the-road performances as a spark for the local economy. "That puts people in motels and people sitting in restaurants, and that means dollars. With people comes money," Athanason said.
Last year, the mermaids played their underwater ballet to a packed house at Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, N.C.
The park's mermaid attraction is returning for a performance there and at a Gatlinburg, Tenn., venue this year. Added to their schedule is an appearance in Denver.
Athanason said that park officials are looking at new and innovative ways to spread word to the masses about the ladies "who have been swimming their tails off" since 1947.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]