On November 1, 2008, Weeki Wachee Springs became Florida’s 162nd state park. Its crystal-clear blue spring waters draw about 420,000 visitors annually. You can kayak or swim in Florida Springs and see native Florida wildlife in many places.
However, there is only one place where you can see live mermaids swimming in those springs, often accompanied by some native wildlife like a turtle or fish. That’s the draw at Weeki Wachee Springs in Hernando County.
Weeki Wachee Springs started its run as a tourist attraction in 1946. This was before the huge theme parks, when kitschy attractions, usually featuring live alligators, began drawing visitors to Florida. Newton Perry purchased the land containing the spring. He pulled out all the rusted junked autos and boats dumped in it and began putting together an idea for an underwater show. Perry was familiar with diving and underwater survival, and as a naval officer, he had trained Navy SEALs to swim underwater. His idea was to put girls in mermaid costumes and perform underwater. To that end, he invented an underwater breathing device using an air hose that pumped oxygen from an air compressor so they could remain submerged. His first mermaids performed at Weeki Wachee on October 13, 1947. Perry had excavated a small underground theater where visitors could watch the young women doing water ballet, eating apples, and drinking underwater. Sitting in the theater I didn’t feel as if I were underground. It’s like being in a regular theater but instead of a screen in front of you, there are a series of glass windows looking into the spring.
Weeki Wachee moved into the big time in 1959 when the American Broadcasting Co. (ABC) purchased the spring. It upgraded and built the current 400 seat underwater theater. Shows became more elaborate.
Buccaneer Bay, its water park, opened in 1982 with four water slides and a white-sand beach. There is a special kiddy area and visitors can rent kayaks or canoes to paddle the Weeki Wachee River.
Until recently, there was a boat tour on the river, but that closed down.
“Weeki Wachee” means “little spring” or “winding river” in the Seminole language. It’s not really little. The spring is the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States. The temperature remains at 72 degrees Fahrenheit all the time. Weeki Wachee River winds over 7 miles before flowing into the Gulf of Mexico. I love kayaking on it and seeing cormorants and anhinga drying their wings in the cypress or bay trees near the bank.
The park covers 538-acres. There are alligators that usually stay near the shore in the marshy area or sunning on downed tree trunks. In winter, manatees sometimes venture into the park. Turtles abound. You may see deer or raccoons on the shore. Watch for eagles overhead.
Mermaids perform the traditional show, Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, and some other underwater feats. The shows last about a half-hour and are normally at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. but that changes often. The water is so clear, you can see the actors perfectly. The mermaids have a breathing tube in hand to allow them to breathe underwater. The characters’ voices speak from speakers in the theater. After the Little Mermaid gets her legs, there is one out-of-water scene on the stage inside the theater when she and her prince dance, then the underwater show resumes with the prince proving that “Love conquers all on land and sea” when he vanquishes the evil sea witch. When I visited, a couple of turtles swam into the scene. A ranger told me that once a manatee spontaneously entered the show; and another time, an alligator. The show stopped for the alligator.
The park had several dining options. Mermaid Galley to the rear of the park has indoor and outdoor seating. It serves burgers, sandwiches, wraps, salads, ice cream, and snacks. Captain’s Quarters, near Buccaneer Bay, serves ice cream, snacks, and drinks. Pirate’s Grubb, also near Buccaneer Bay, offers outdoor dining with burgers, hot dogs, chicken fingers, and snacks. Tiki Bar offers adult refreshments, including beer, wine, and frozen drinks near Buccaneer Bay’s beach. It has some grilled food choices. Snack Shack near Buccaneer Bay’s swimming area has ice cream and soft drinks.
The Hernando Historical Museum Association has three museums that tell Hernando County’s history. The May-Stringer House, sometimes called Heritage House, began as a simple four-room cabin in 1842 during the midst of the Seminole Wars, when the government passed the Armed Occupation Act, giving 160 acres to settlers who moved to Florida, farmed at least 5 acres, and helped fight the Seminoles. Richard Wiggins homesteaded the land and built the first small shelter. After the Civil War, the Saxon family, who owned it then, renovated it to its present look, a four-story gabled house with a lot of gingerbread trim. It has 14 rooms and is believed to be haunted. A tour gives a feel for life in Florida during the Victorian era.
The Train Depot was built in 1885. Today the former rail tracks are part of the Rails to Trails program and form the Good Neighbor Trail. Besides the depot, there is a restored boxcar, a 1925 LaFrance fire engine, and some farm equipment.
The Countryman One-Room Schoolhouse is a replica of the 1852 Lykes School, the first school in this county built by the Lykes family in Spring Hill.
Pro Tips: If you begin your paddle from the park dock, you need a timed reservation. You cannot swim within the park other than at Buccaneer Bay, but once outside, you are free to take a dip in the cooling waters.