Celebrating 75 years of Weeki Wachee with Destination Mermaids The Tail Trail
‘We’re going to see mermaids,” I told our girls as we headed north on Highway 19.
‘Mermaids aren’t real,’ our eldest scoffed.
‘Yes, they are,’ I countered.
Her eyes narrowed. ‘Then how come I haven’t seen one?’
‘That’s because they only live in one place…’
Weeki Wachee Mermaid Shows began in 1947
Long before Walt Disney cleared a swamp in Orlando, Florida’s original underwater princesses won hearts of Floridians and beyond.
In 1947, diver and entrepreneur Newton Perry and his bevy of beautiful swimmers welcomed visitors into the innovative underwater theater built into the side of a spring at Weeki Wachee on Florida’s Nature Coast.
After all the alligator attractions and a sip of sulfur water at the Fountain of Youth, a pack of pretty girls in swimsuits performing aquatic stunts and ballet underwater became a popular draw for years to come.
Destination Mermaids: The Trail Tail Project
Now, Weeki Wachee is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this October with a mermaid reunion and unveiling of 26 individually decorated mermaid statues at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
The juried artists who designed and hand-painted each statue will be on hand at this unveiling to meet and greet the public. The 80-lb, 6-foot decorated statues will remain at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park for viewing through the celebration weekend before being transported to their permanent homes.
Ocala has its horse statues, Lakeland has swans and Crystal River has manatees, The idea for decorating mermaid statues seemed like an obvious choice for Florida’s Adventure Coast- home of its iconic Weeki Wachee mermaids, and a perfect way to showcase artistic talents of the area.
“Mermaids are the beautiful and iconic symbol of our County,” said John Athanason, Tourism Marketing Specialist with Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitor’s Bureau. He and Tammy Heon, Tourism Manager, discussed the mermaid statue idea for years – a trail of art to lead visitors to places throughout Hernando County that they might not normally visit. 2022 is the year to make it happen!
To create the statue, a face casting of Kristy Lowman, one of Weeki Wachee’s mermaids was made. This was added to a custom statue crafted for Florida’s Adventure Coast. Learn more about it here.
Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitor Bureau worked with Brooksville Main Street and Hernando County’s Fine Arts Council to bring together this mermaid project, pairing local artists with sponsors. A call to artists went out and 100 applications were submitted.
The choice was narrowed down to under half by a panel of judges. Sponsors of the project were given a collection of designs to choose from before their chosen artist began their 5-week creations.
Twenty-six life-sized mermaid statutes will be ready for their grand unveiling October 13, 2022.
Florida’s Adventure Coast Visitor’s Bureau visited the artists during their work. There are a lot of great videos here.
Once in their permanent homes, a plaque will name each mermaid’s sponsor and artist.
The Original Mermaid Trail
Florida’s Mermaid Trail leads visitors through the small-town charm of downtown Brooksville on 27-stops. Each little mermaid adds a new level of discovery to a local gem or business that may normally be off one’s radar. You can read more about it here.
The original Florida Mermaid Trail will remain, and the Destination Mermaids The Tail Trail will follow the same concept on a wider scale, casting a net across Hernando County.
Maps of the Tail Trail will be available when mermaids are set in their permanent homes. Visitors will be able to download new maps from the Florida Adventure Coast website or pick up a copy at the Visitors Center, 205 E. Fort Dade Avenue, in Brooksville.
Original Adagio Mermaid Statue at Week Wachee will be dedicated as a National Historic Landmark
Weeki Wachee State Park’s Mermaid Statue Unveiling event will be open to the public after a private ceremony. A plaque at the recently renovated Adagio Fountain in front of the park will be revealed, recognizing the Adagio mermaid statue, built in 1966, as a National Historic Landmark.
The iconic Adagio pose featured in almost every show, was created by original mermaids Dianne Wyatt McDonald and Mary Dwight.
Dianne was a high school senior back in 1947 and a member of the St. Petersburg Aquabelles, an 8-person synchronized swim team. Newton Perry heard about Aquabelles and watched them perform. Afterwards, he asked if they would be able to do their synchronized swimming under the water.
Aquabelles practiced their breathing and choreographed an underwater show for the former Navy diver. He was impressed and the rest is history.
Dianne and those other swimmers’ performances in that time were without use of masks or air hoses. They held their breaths while performing.
Some Weeki Wachee mermaids could hold their breath for up to 4-minutes underwater. It took a lot of practice and talent to reach that feat.
Like other mermaids, Dianne carries warm memories of her time at Weeki Wachee. Mermaid Dianne, now 92, will be attending the Adagio mermaid statue dedication ceremony and reunion event during the 75th Anniversary celebrations at the park.
Once a Mermaid, always a Mermaid: Mermaid History
At 82-years young, mermaid Vickie Smith is the oldest performing Weeki Wachee mermaid. She will be part of a special show at this mermaid reunion. She and other former mermaids from the 50s, 60s and 70s make up Weeki Wachee’s Legendary Sirens. They reunited during the 50th anniversary mermaid reunion and returned to their beloved spring, calling themselves the Legendary Sirens. This will be their first performance since Covid.
“When you get underwater, you’re 17 again. You never forget the mystery and magic of the spring,” Vicki said in her Mermaid Memories interview on Florida’s Adventure Coast YouTube channel.
Vicki performed at Weeki Wachee from 1957 to 1961, straight out of high school. Every girl wanted to be a mermaid. Back then swimmers wore white face masks, white fins, and bathing suits.
“There were no try-outs, no tests…they gave you an air hose and kicked you in the water,” she says.
Later mermaids then performed underwater ballet and stunts like eating a banana underwater and drinking Grapette soda. The cola they originally drank made the girls bloated, so they had to switch to a less carbonated drink.
ABC brings the Glam to Weeki Wachee Mermaids
American Broadcasting Company took over from Newt Perry in 1959. ABC brought a Hollywood glamor to Weeki Wachee mermaids, introducing costumes, props, and storylines to their show. They also piped in music. For the first time ever, swimmers were able to hear music and time their routines to the songs.
Vicki was one of those mermaids who performed for Elvis during his 1961 visit. The King took time off during his filming of Follow That Dream in Yankeetown & Inverness to stop and see his fans, promote his new album, and meet Weeki Wachee mermaids.
Every decade of mermaids has their own tail tales and trials, from performing against the 111 million gallons of fresh water pumping from the springs below, shows being halted by visiting gators, to friendly manatees and show-stealing turtles.
Weeki Wachee Springs becomes a Florida State Park
Weeki Wachee Springs became a Florida state park on November 1, 2008, and today a mermaid applicant must go through rigorous training, becoming certified in SCUBA & CPR. They even undergo a final Mermaid Test before they are welcomed into the magic of the springs as a Weeki Wachee Mermaid. You can read more here.
75 years later, mesmerizing magic of the springs and the siren call of mermaids still draws crowds from around the world.
Spoilers: NatureCoaster & Mermaid Nico
“We wanted to be a part of such a wonderful addition to the Nature Coast by sponsoring a mermaid on Destination Mermaids The Tail Trail,” Diane said, “This idea will help visitors and residents explore the best of our area in a fun way. We chose mermaid Nico because we loved her music interaction and undersea theme. It is whimsical and colorful!”
Drawn by the colorful design, Diane Bedard of NatureCoaster sponsored Jesse Kasabian and his Mermaid Nico.
Jesse Kasabian is a Brooksville local, originally favoring colored pencil portraits and drawing. Then he started tackling larger projects. Stop by to see his wall mural at Frosty Frank’s next to Coney Island in Brooksville or his mural at the entrance to the Nature Coast Botanical Gardens in Spring Hill.
Like all Weeki Wachee mermaids, Jesse’s Mermaid Nico has a story. She’s a singer in her band, Nico and the Velvet Underwater. Jesse drew his inspiration from The Velvet Underground and the Andy-Warhol pop-art era.
He created Nico sharing her pedestal with several sea creatures of her band, Peter Turtle on keys, Sassy Seahorse on saxophone with her sister on trumpet & Jessie Dolphin on the drums. You can watch Jesse’s interview about his creative process for Mermaid Nico here.
Mermaid Nico’s message to our world can resonate with all mermaids, in water and in heart: “Work hard at your craft. Success comes after working hard. Stay positive. Keep at it and people will notice.”
Come Out and Celebrate the 75th Anniversary of Weeki Wachee Springs and the unveiling of Destination Mermaids: The Tail Trail October 13-16
After the unveiling at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, each new mermaid of Destination Mermaids: The Tail Trail will go to their permanent homes throughout Hernando County. Mermaid Nico will reside at Anderson Snow Park in Spring Hill. We are so excited!