Bonnie Georgiadis, one of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park’s longest-employed mermaids, has died. She was 86.
Georgiadis plunged into the spring’s crystal clear waters as a swimmer and emerged as a mentor to dozens of mermaids. Her 37-year stint at the park also included choreographing and producing seven shows, rubbing elbows (fins?) with Hollywood stars and taking care of numerous birds of prey.
Georgiadis was born at her family’s Tarpon Springs hotel, Villa Plumosa. As she grew up near the Anclote River, she developed a fascination with the swimming movie star Esther Williams. She was 11 when Newton Perry launched underwater mermaid performances at Weeki Wachee Springs.
“I knew that’s what I wanted to be the minute I saw them perform,” she said in a 2013 blog post for The Florida Bookshelf.
Georgiadis eagerly awaited 1953, when she would turn 17 and become eligible to apply for a job. By then, she had spent hours at the local pool honing her skills, from a graceful dolphin kick to smiling underwater with her eyes open. She was asked to come back to the park for mermaid training the following week.
“I was in heaven!” Georgiadis wrote.
Back then, mermaids performed in silence, amazing audiences with elegant underwater ballet moves in between puffs from an air hose. Girls typically swam in multiple 40-minute shows a day, eating bananas and gulping down bottles of Grapette soda underwater. Then they dried off to take tickets and announce the other programs.
When American Broadcasting Company took over the park in 1959, Georgiadis embraced the changes. Mermaids were fitted for shiny lamé tails and performed to circus music and classical songs in a new underwater theater. ABC hired photographers to shoot aquatic publicity photos; Georgiadis hammed it up, holding her breath as she struck various poses.
“She was not afraid to make silly faces and that’s why you see so many of them,” said Lu Vickers, Georgiadis’ friend and the author of several books about Weeki Wachee.
Georgiadis performed for over a decade, swimming her way up the ranks to become mermaid supervisor. Along the way, she got a taste of stardom.
While she was off the day Elvis famously visited the park, she got to appear on NBC’s “Wide Wide World” documentary and game shows including “What’s My Line?” and “To Tell the Truth.” When the television program “Route 66″ came to film an episode at Weeki Wachee in the early ‘60s, Georgiadis showed the actors how to perform with an air hose.
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“She was the one you could always count on for guidance,” said retired mermaid Vera Huckaby, who appeared alongside Georgiadis during the episode. “She was a beautiful swimmer and she was always helpful.”
The world’s first underwater movie premiere took place at Weeki Wachee in 1964. The stars of “The Incredible Mr. Limpet,” including Don Knotts, came to the mermaid theater to celebrate.
“She had to swim up to the window and blow a kiss to him,” Huckaby said.
When the spring water’s yearround chill started to take a toll on Georgiadis’ body, she switched to a position on land, Vickers said.
As a producer and choreographer, Georgiadis helped ABC crank out a new production every year. She converted classic stories like Peter Pan, the Wizard of Oz and Snow White into mermaid masterpieces. She also dreamed up original shows, like “Mermaids on the Moon.”
“She would design all of the props and the costumes as well,” remembered retired mermaid Becky Young. “Even from the first time I met her, she was always outgoing and vibrant and so creative.”
Susan Hopkins, a tomboy who joined the team in the late 60s, loved the comedic routines. She was less confident when it came to ballet.
“I was talking to her about that one day and she said, ‘Susan, you’re a good swimmer. All you have to do is go into the water and think: I am the best swimmer in the world,’” Hopkins said. “And you know, she was right.”
As Disney World transformed Florida tourism, visitors drifted away from Weeki Wachee. To save money, the park stopped switching mermaid programs each year. Instead, it launched a new birds of prey show. Georgiadis traded choreography for falconry.
It was a great fit for nature lover. In her spare time, Georgiadis loved to explore remote Florida areas and paddle down the Peace River with her best friend and fellow mermaid, Genie Young. As bird manager, Georgiadis worked with a variety of imperiled Florida species.
“Ms. Georgiadis became friend and foster mom to injured egrets, pelicans and birds of prey,” wrote the St. Petersburg Times in 1989. “Seagulls, blue herons and osprey wanting an easy meal learned to recognize the soft chug-chug-chug of her car loaded with frozen fish and would wait quietly as she approached the pelican sanctuary at the end of a bumpy road in the attraction.”
She was especially proud of the two bald eagles she rehabbed and released.
“I know she loved being a mermaid, but she really treasured working with those birds,” Vickers said. “When she talked about it, she was in awe.”
By then, Weeki Wachee had become more than just a job. She even passed down her swimming genes to her daughter, Tasula, who became a mermaid. The pair swam together on multiple occasions.
But Georgiadis’ long career at the park ended in 1989 when Florida Leisure Acquisition took over, nixing the bird show and her position. The company began destroying old props and burning promo photos.
According to Vickers’ reporting, Georgiadis and the other fired employees were threatened with the loss of their severance if they spoke out. She left quietly, but not before rescuing as many old photographs as she could.
Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Times’ editorial page lambasted the new owner over their decision, calling Georgiadis a “vital part of the Weeki Wachee Springs Attraction.”
“Her greatest joy was seeing a recovered bird go back to its home in the wild,” the Times said. “Because of management’s hasty decision to fire her, Georgiadis’ voice is silenced and that’s a loss for local wildlife and those who care about it.”
Georgiadis had a big soft spot for history, and played a significant role in preserving Weeki Wachee’s past. In 1970, she helped the University of Florida during an archeological dig of a Native American burial ground at Weeki Wachee. She was also an important source in Vickers’ first book on the park.
“She had these amazing scrapbooks. She had worked there longer than anyone else,” Vickers said. “She was so generous in her help with me, giving me access to all of her stuff and letting me stay at her house.”
Vickers brought Georgiadis on as a co-author for her next book, “Weeki Wachee Mermaids: Thirty Years of Underwater Photography.” Thanks to Georgiadis’s contributions, the project featured numerous rare postcards and photos. It won a gold medal in the 2012 Florida Book Awards’ visual arts category.
“I got her to write all of the captions because I knew she was funny,” Vickers said.
Georgiadis continued to hang out with her mermaid sisters for decades, meeting up for picnics and reunions and annual long weekends in Cedar Key. She was among the first class of women inducted in the park’s Hall of Fame in 2012.
In recent years, Georgiadis’s longtime partner died from the coronavirus. He had been her caregiver as her health waned, and Georgiadis moved to Statesboro, Georgia, to live with her daughter in the fall of 2021. She died on July 19.
Her legacy at Weeki Wachee, especially among the mermaids who loved her, lives on.
“It was like you could soar through the water,” Hopkins said. “That’s the way I remember Bonnie: Someone who just glided through the water and just made it look so easy, when in reality it wasn’t.”