WEEKI WACHEE — Even with no water or audience in sight, the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park were performing "The Little Mermaid." Their calling-card show, it takes practice — even when the underwater theater sits empty.
The mermaid playing the Sea Witch stepped to the middle of the floor in the park's ballroom. It has acted as a makeshift backstage since renovations began a couple of years ago on the Villa, where the human performers put on their costumes and do their dry practices. The mermaids were in the middle of another dry practice now, so the Sea Witch walked around on two legs with no tail.
There have been no audiences since November, when much of the park closed for renovations. By January, a footbridge just past the front gate had been knocked down for replacement, and sidewalks snaking around the park had been ripped up. Caution tape stretched around the entrance to the underwater theater. Inside, the naked legs of the theater's bench seats stood in hazy blue light from the underwater window. In total, the renovations cost just shy of $3 million, most of it going toward the theater.
The finished interior will feel familiar to longtime visitors, said John Athanason, the park's marketing director. It'll have refurbished seating, fresh paint and better lighting, but it's meant to enhance the old atmosphere rather than quash it.
"That's one of the things we pride ourselves on here, is that old-Florida kitschy taste," he said. "You're still going to have the same feel of the old, nostalgic Weeki Wachee."
The park draws about 420,000 visitors annually, Athanason said, with attendance peaking at 60,000 to 70,000 in July. Updates about shows, which are set to resume March 15, will appear on the park's website and social media pages.
Visitors probably won't see changes that most excite park employees, especially mermaids. In the mid-renovation Villa, grids of exposed metal hinted at walls and hallways, and only a ballet bar suggested the dry-practice purpose of an empty room.
But the mermaids, many of whom started the job after renovations on the Villa began, are eager to inhabit a space where generations of mermaids have turned themselves from human to myth. Weeki Wachee has 22 underwater theater staff now, more than seven decades after the park's first underwater show in 1947.
"As a person who's never actually been in the locker rooms, I'm really excited to get ready in a place where the old mermaids have been for decades," said Elizabeth Wilder, who started as a mermaid last year.
"We'll be in the place with the soul of the mermaids," added Brittany Ellis, who joined at the same time as Wilder.
Though guests may not notice a difference in the underwater stage, Amanda Luter, the underwater theater manager and a veteran mermaid, said renovations there will double down on safety features and open more room for the mermaids to expand their choreography.
"It might not look like a ton, but it's going to be so beautiful," she said. "Getting a new stage will definitely bring us into the future."
Luter described the months without public performances as weird but "super beneficial." Even with the theater closed, the mermaids don't have downtime — they just don't have to build their six-and-a-half hours of daily practice around shows.
Now, Luter said, they have time to repair minor damage to their costumes, and some of the mermaids are learning how to sew. They're developing new shows, including holiday performances and a take on a popular TV show Luter said she couldn't publicly name yet.
And without performances as part of the daily routine, the mermaids practice together as a larger group, which they said has accelerated their bonding.
"Trust is a huge part of the job," Luter said, "and I think working as a team and working as a group, they have that trust in each other."
Contact Jack Evans at [email protected] Follow @JackHEvans.