A new show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park honors the iconic attraction where the annual adult mermaid camps have become one of the hottest tickets around.
I became a mermaid in May of 2012. I thought I was going on assignment to write a mermaid camp story for a daily newspaper, but I came away with a truly life-changing experience in terms of increased self-confidence, becoming part of an ever-widening circle of “mersisters” and finding nirvana.
The two-day Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is led by women who were performing mermaids at the iconic attraction on Florida’s West Coast. They are known as the Legendary Sirens and volunteer for each camp and to perform shows for visitors one weekend a month. It is their commitment that continues to fuel what is surely one of the planet’s most unique learning opportunities for women over age 30.
The lore of the mythical creatures known as mermaids goes back centuries and is found in cultures around the globe. Mysterious. Beautiful. Treacherous. Playful. Alluring. Those are just a few of the terms often ascribed to beings with the upper body of a woman and the tail of a fish. There also are purported mermen, but that’s a tale for another time.
As Florida began to blossom in its heyday of attracting tourists to roadside attractions, many based on the abundant natural resources, one of the most popular was Weeki Wachee Springs, south of Homosassa Springs and north of Tarpon Springs.
The crystal waters bubbling up out of the first magnitude springs—which issues about 64.6 million gallons of water per day—attracted the attention of Ocalan Newton “Newt” Perry. He had gained national acclaim for his swimming prowess and helped bring a slew of Hollywood films to Silver Springs—working with such stars as Johnny Weissmuller, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck, Jayne Mansfield, Ann Blyth and Lloyd Bridges. He was also determined to save Weeki Wachee Springs from serving as a dump site for abandoned vehicles. He even helped the U.S. Navy develop its Frogmen program, now known as the Navy Seals, and invented an underwater air chamber and air hose system that became the backbone on which a mermaid empire was built.
Perry’s Weeki Wachee Springs attraction opened on October 13th, 1947. It wasn’t long before a variety of underwater stunts began to pull in visitors by the thousands and the mermaids started to steal the show.
One of the longtime performing mermaids, Barbara Wynns, had an idea in the early 2000s that perhaps other women might want to learn to become mermaids. That seed germinated into the Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp program. The camps now come under the auspices of the Friends of Weeki Wachee State Park. All proceeds from the camps benefit the nonprofit group.
On January 18th this year, within minutes of the 2020 series of camps opening for registration online, all 10 camps, with eight students per session, at a cost of $450 each, were completely sold out. And I’m pretty sure I know why.
The Making of a Mermaid
Day one of my mermaid camp included myself and five other women showing up on a Saturday with our hair nicely done and makeup applied. Once we were fitted with our “tail,” we posed for portraits before we went into the cool, clear water. Paired one-on-one with a siren, we learned some basic ballet moves underwater and how to undulate, which is like swimming with your legs tied together.
We were in the water between each of the performing mermaid’s shows. By the end of the day, I was so tired I could barely walk. But the camp leader, Wynns, told us the next day would be “magic.”
On Sunday, slipping into the tail and gliding through the crystal water felt completely natural. No fear. No anxiety. Just joy. I felt beautiful, almost ethereal.
We frolicked together, posed for a group photo underwater and made kissy-faces at visiting loved ones through the thick glass of the underwater theater.
At the end of the day, Wynns told us to swim across the magical spring and enjoy the rare opportunity of being able to do so.
I did the “mermaid crawl” (a modified breast stroke) swim to the far side. I began to float, with the warm sun on my face, the cold springs on my back, and only the sound of my heartbeat coming through my water-filled ears.
I was, for the first time in my entire 60 years of living, at complete peace. This, I thought, is what “zen” is. I never wanted to leave that moment.
A Mermaid Legacy
Becky Young, a native of Iowa, saw a television special about Weeki Wachee when she was in middle school.
“I thought, Boy, if I ever get to Florida, I’ve got to see that place,” she recalls. “In my senior of high school, my parents moved here and I was looking through the want ads and saw ‘Wanted: Mermaids’ in the St. Petersburg Times. I sent a resume and letter and heard back from them right away. They asked me to come for a water test and interview. I thought, Oh gosh, they are never going to hire me. I’m not glamourous like those girls, but I’ll get to see the place I have dreamed of for so long and talk to mermaids and get a behind-the-scenes view and that would be most amazing day of my life.”
She says after her water test, the mermaid supervisor said, “‘So, when do you think you could start working?’ I thought I had died and gone to heaven.”
Young performed as a Weeki Wachee mermaid from 1973-76 and 1981-85. She has been part of the Legendary Sirens since its inception in 1997. She said the camps were very small at first and that organizers have learned a lot along the way.
“As the camps have grown, we have found out what works, what we can do better,” Young offers. “A lot of people want to do it and we understand that and we’ve looked at different models. People tell us what makes it special is that former mermaids run the camp and they are learning from people who are more like them, because it is a camp for adults, for people of all sizes, shapes and genders. And the fact that we are not young with perfect bodies can be a comforting factor for many.”
As for any expansion plans to accommodate more campers, “There is a limited number of us who can make that kind of commitment,” Young explains. “We have eight Legendary Sirens who do shows and camps. And we have three more who only help with camps. To do things differently, we’d have to take on more campers per counselor/mermaid and I think that kind of dilutes what we’re trying to offer. As a rule, it’s one or two campers per mermaid. And that’s really what it takes to be fun and meaningful and, quite honestly, safe in some cases. Some people need a little more and they get one-on-one.”
Young says there are myriad reasons why people want to attend mermaid camp, including sad and inspirational stories.
“We have one co-ed camp every year and last year a couple that came, the woman had just beaten cancer,” she notes. “This was kind of their celebration together.”
Jamie Anderson Wyatt is a Palm Bay mom of two daughters and a freelance journalist. She is a two-time camp alum and her oldest daughter will attend Junior Mermaid Camp this summer for the second time.
“My grandmother used to take my mom to visit Weeki Wachee. Then my mom took me when I was little. Now, I take both my daughters. It’s a sweet family tradition that I hope they can pass along to their children,” Wyatt says. “The Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp allows women to fulfill their dream of transforming into a beautiful mermaid. It was one of the best adventures of my life. I cherish the memories I made and treasure the mersisters I became friends with.”
“The spring is a being in and of itself,” Young offers with reverence in her voice. “It’s almost like she is the siren that calls all of us. She’s amazing.”
The Ocala Connection
Weeki Wachee springs was filled with junk cars and far away from any decent road when Ross Allen, the noted herpetologist who gained fame at the Silver Springs Attraction, introduced those waters to his friend and fellow Ocalan Newt Perry.
“This was in the early 1930s,” notes Delee Perry, Newt’s daughter, who lives in Ocala and has operated Perry’s Swim School for many years. “Daddy graduated from UF and got married and was a teacher but always had in the back of his mind that something had to be done with this spring. My dad was an ecologist way before anybody heard of taking care of the springs. During WWII, Ed Ball, who owned Wakulla, up near Tallahassee, needed somebody to run his lodge, so he got Daddy.”
She explains that General Omar Bradley contacted her dad and said they wanted him to be part of a secretive organization for the Navy, called the Frogmen, and that was how he got very involved in scuba diving and invented the air station and air hose system.
“In 1946, he finally had enough money, contacts and six investors. They started building Weeki Wachee,” she recalls. “Once he got the underwater theater built, some young girls came by and he was impressed with their swimming and started teaching them underwater ballet. They were the original mermaids. A couple of them are still alive and love to tell me about how Dad would pay them in hamburgers.
“My dad was Johnny Weissmuller’s double in the Tarzan movies and he did about 120 Grantland Rice short films,” Perry adds. “Daddy said that anything that could be done on land could be done underwater.”
Development Representative for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park John Athanason, who is also from Ocala, says the park underwent a recent major renovation that included improvements to the underwater theater, widening sidewalks and more. To showcase the improvements, the park debuted a new show that honors New Perry’s legacy.
“The Wonders of Weeki show is a bit different from The Little Mermaid performance we do,” he explains. “It still has numbers where the mermaids perform routines to choreographed music, but there is a story the show tells, and it talks about the history of the park and there is an environmental aspect. Of course, when we talk about the history of Weeki Wachee, it has to mention Newt Perry.”
Delee Perry has seen the new mermaid show and loves it.
“That he created the mermaid show that is still running today just thrills me to death,” she offers. “And it thrills me to no end that he can be honored in that way.”
Athanason says he believes the staying power of the park and the mermaid programs is because they are so unique.
“Nowhere else are you going to be able to view a live mermaid show in the setting of a natural spring, seated 16 feet below the surface of the water,” he explains. “No one can ever duplicate what we have here.”
But, I have found, camp sirens can take what happens there back into their own world. After my camp, I bought a beautiful aqua mermaid tail and I have a lot of fun donning it and swimming into pods of people at area springs, beaches and pools. And that is the poignant personal lesson I learned at Weeki Wachee: Once a mermaid, always a mermaid.
To learn more about Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, which, in addition to the mermaid shows, offers a river boat cruise, wildlife pavilion, water park, kayaking and more, visit www.weekiwachee.com. Admission is $13 for adults; $8 for ages 6-12; and free for ages 5 and under and those who have a Florida State Parks annual pass.
See more mermaids during the Florida Springs Fest at Silver Springs State Park on March 7th and 8th, with members of Florida Merfolk on hand. The Florida Springs Mermaids will host a Spring Splash from May 1st through May 3rd at Ginnie Springs near High Springs. Find details about both events on Facebook.