Joy Lotito slid into the cool, crisp water at Weeki Wachee Springs wearing a shiny blue wig and a brilliant blue bathing suit fitted with a wide tail flipper. After 50 years of dreaming of this moment, it was finally happening. Lotito, 60, had become a mermaid.
The seed was planted at age 10, after Lotito saw a TV show about a water attraction park in Florida, far from her Long Island home.
"I want to be a mermaid when I grow up," Lotito told her mother.
"Are you kidding?" Margie Falkiner responded, a bit amused.
From her earliest years, Lotito loved the water and wasn't content with surface swimming. When she was 5, her family provided swimming lessons in a Pennsylvania lake. Lotito was impatient with just putting her face in the water and blowing bubbles. She wanted to be in the water, deep in the water.
When the instructors offered the final challenge of jumping off the dock fully clothed, a practice in self rescue, Lotito was thrilled.
"I couldn't wait to jump in with my clothes on. It was a challenge," she recalled.
Fifteen years after Lotito saw that TV show about the mermaids in Florida, her mother retired to New Port Richey with her stepfather. Falkiner called her daughter from her new home.
"Do you know what's right up the road from where we live?" she asked.
In the years that followed, Lotito visited her mother numerous times, and they always somehow ended up at Weeki Wachee.
"It would just take my breath away. I lost track of the number of times I went," said Lotito, who worked back then as an insurance accountant in Long Island.
In 2002, Lotito and her husband, Buddy, retired to New Port Richey. Two years later, she introduced her 12-year-old granddaughter, Kelsie Lotito, to Weeki Wachee. Lotito promptly brought bright red bathing suit material and fashioned a mermaid outfit for Kelsie, who swam in it at Hudson Beach.
In April, Lotito saw a Bay News 9 broadcast about women attending a mermaid camp at Weeki Wachee. For a fee, women can learn the underwater ballet moves of the mermaids and be fitted with a tail.
"I was so excited I could hardly sleep that night," she said. "The next day I got an application for the camp."
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It wasn't long before she knew fulfilling her dream was close. She chose her 60th birthday last month for her first swim as a mermaid.
Dozens of friends and family members, including her mother, watched from the theater window as Lotito swooped and glided in the same springs she'd seen on TV.
"My mother was thrilled that my dream finally came true," Lotito said.
From the minute she slid into the water, she felt at home.
"It was where I belonged," she said. "It's a foreign feeling to be underwater without air but I didn't care. I just wanted to do this."
Camp participants don't use the air hoses that Weeki Wachee performers use. They take air from the surface, hold their breath, dive and perform graceful moves before resurfacing.
The Weeki Wachee experience was just the beginning.
The camp supplied a mermaid outfit for the event, but Lotito decided to make her own out of shimmering blue bathing suit material. There are no patterns for such a thing, so Lotito made it up as she went along.
In preparation for her Weeki Wachee swim, she had become a certified scuba diver. It's not a requirement for the camp, but the scuba flippers came in handy. Her enthusiastic husband drilled holes on the flippers' sides so they could attach them, creating a broad fin that Lotito encased in blue for a mermaid tail.
"I plan to swim in this at the beach and I hope to scuba dive in it," Lotito said, laughing.
She can already envision the surprised look on scuba divers' faces when they encounter a dazzling blue mermaid in the deep sea.