WEEKI WACHEE — More than six decades ago a champion swimmer named Newton Perry had a vision for a roadside attraction centered on the crystal-clear waters flowing from the Weeki Wachee spring. Perry built an underwater theater and taught women to breathe from special hoses while performing acrobatics.
Weeki Wachee Springs would become an iconic destination, but the attraction also evolved as a mazelike hodgepodge of aging buildings. Now a vision on paper aims to breathe renewed life into the home of the famous mermaids, which in 2008 became a state park.
Florida Park Service officials recently published a master plan featuring nearly $8.7 million in improvements to the historic attraction and Buccaneer Bay, the water park adjacent to the spring.
The plan is separated into three phases, but there is no timetable for completion, said Sine Murray, an assistant chief of park planning for the park service. Some of the improvements are already under way; some are years from becoming a reality, Murray said.
The highlights include a $1.5 million museum and interpretive center, and a $1.5 million bathhouse and concession area for Buccaneer Bay. The priciest feature is perhaps the most practical: A redesigned $2 million parking lot will feature better traffic flow and native plants to filter pollutants.
"We think the plan really reflects our commitment to preserving the historic character of the attraction, the importance of water quality and the protection of the spring and river," Murray said. "We've identified our needs, we've identified our priorities, and we'll start ticking them off as we can."
Located just inside the entrance to the park, the mermaid theater is often the first stop for visitors. From there, though, many people find the attraction difficult to navigate, Murray said.
The plan calls for construction of a central promenade that will run from the entry gate north to the cruise boat dock on the Weeki Wachee River. A fountain at the promenade's midpoint will serve as a focal point and a place for visitors to pause as they decide where to go next, Murray said.
"When you go into Disney, you can see all the way down to Cinderella's Castle," Murray said. "It propels you forward and brings you into the park."
The promenade will require the demolition of the existing banquet hall, but that won't happen until the interpretive center and museum building, which will include space for special events, is built. The exhibits in the center would highlight the history of the attraction, its natural setting and the native tribes that called the place home centuries ago.
That's an exciting feature, said Tammy Heon, the county's tourist development coordinator, who set up a satellite office at Weeki Wachee Springs last summer.
"There's a great hunger out there for the story and the history of the park," Heon said. "People want to know: How did you get this theater sunk into this spring? How did the mermaids come to be? The more we can get that story out there, the more people are going to want to come visit."
At Buccaneer Bay, the plan calls for a $500,000 splash pool in addition to the combined bathhouse and concession building. One of the three water slides, the Pirate's Plunge, has already been dismantled due to safety concerns, and the other two will be torn down when they no longer can be maintained safely, Murray said.
"Buccaneer Bay is really important to the local community, especially in the summer, so we want to preserve that as a family destination," she said.
Attendance has increased steadily at the park each year, even through the Great Recession, with 273,742 visitors passing through the gate in fiscal year 2012-13. But gate revenue doesn't stay at the park. Instead, it's sent back to Tallahassee and redistributed by the Legislature.
"We've got 171 (state) parks and trails now, and as our director likes to say they all need new shoes," Murray said.
So other funding sources will be critical in completing projects in the master plan. The Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the land under the attraction, might be able to help pay for the parking lot, said Veronica Craw, manager of the district's springs and environmental flows section.
The nonprofit Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs will play an important part in raising money for some of the other features, state officials said. The group's board of directors will meet soon to discuss the plan and identify priorities for fundraising, said president Denise Tenuto.
Tony Marrero can be reached at [email protected]