Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Apple #418: Weeki Wachee Mermaids

One of the things I did on my vacation in Florida was go with my friend Mark to the Weeki Wachee springs park.

(Map from epodunk)

The major attraction here is watching the mermaid shows.

Weeki Wachee mermaids performing. Those long black lines are air hoses that allow the mermaids to breathe while they perform.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The park is based around a freshwater spring. In fact, the name is a Seminole phrase that means "little spring." But the spring is not so little.

The spring is actually an underground freshwater river that comes up to the surface from at least 400 feet deep. Some sources say that nobody's ever gotten to the bottom; others say that a few years ago when a drought lowered the water level, people did manage to dive down and mark the depth with a little mermaid statuette.

The spring pumps water up from those depths at rate of 170 million gallons every 24 hours. The water stays at 72 to 74 degrees year-round. Because it's freshwater and it doesn't have a lot of sulfur or other minerals in the water, it's very clear and good for snorkeling and diving.

In 1946 a man named Newton Perry former, who was a Navy frogman and ex-stuntman from the Tarzan movies, tried new ways of breathing underwater at the Weeki Wachee springs. He used an air compressor to supply oxygen through an air hose that people could breathe from as they needed to. As long as the air compressor is running, they can stay underwater as long as they like.

One year later, the Weeki Wachee Mermaid park was born. One side of the underwater spring was cut away and replaced with glass so that people could watch the underwater shows.

Mermaid Kylee, who just started, performing in her first show. You can see the air hose very clearly in this photo.
(Photo from the Weeki Wachee Springs facebook page)

The mermaids do choreographed dance routines that include arabesques, somersaults, shimmies, and my personal favorite, the grab-her-ankles-and-everybody-go-in-a-circle move. That seemed to be the big finale.

The mermaid circle with one mermaid swimming through the center
(Photo from Florida's Dept of EPA)

They demonstrated how they can drink an entire bottle of Coke underwater, and they also ate bananas.

One of the mermaids drinking from a bottle of Coke. The announcer explained how they do this, but I missed the first part of it. I think they hold the bottle upright to take off the cap while sliding their thumb over the opening, then put their mouths over the opening and tilt the bottle back.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

One mermaid also let go of her air hose and dove 117 feet down into the spring. The show's announcer encouraged us in the audience to try to hold our breath while she dove. I think everyone in the audience gave up long before she came back up and took up her air hose again.

They also do little shows that are based on popular Disney storylines. While we were there, they performed a version of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid.

Having spent a lot of time in lakes and swimming pools when I was growing up, I thought this looked pretty easy. But the mermaids have been trained to take in the right amount of oxygen so they'll all stay in roughly the same position in the water, which is about 16 feet below the surface. They often have to lip sync to the music that's playing on a loudspeaker for the audience, and while they're doing that they keep count of how long it's been in between breaths so they won't start to float or sink. And of course they have to smile the whole time and make it look easy.

She was one of the better mermaids in that she seemed the most relaxed and happy doing her routine. But you can see that sometimes even the best mermaid's smile fades while she's concentrating.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Mermaid Cyndi says doing a 45-minute show is comparable to running two miles. Since the mermaids do three shows a day, that amounts to about six miles of intense jogging. Most mermaids say that when they get out of the water, especially when they first start the job, they're sore.

Lots of mermaids suffer from frequent ear infections, sinus pressure problems, colds, and nose bleeds. Some also experience partial hearing loss.

They can't see the audience on the other side of the glass, but they can hear the applause -- or so the show's announcer says. They do wave to people at the beginning and end of a show. I think if they're up close to the glass they can see people in the audience because a couple of mermaids pointed to particular people and even blew a kiss or two in someone's direction.

The "curtain" that signals the end of the show is a great whoosh of bubbles that shoots up from the bottom of the glass and obscures everything.

The end of the Little Mermaid show. You can see the bubble curtain starting, especially at the left. The big black line in the middle is the edge of the frame in between the panels of glass between the spring and the audience. The frog dude role was performed by a woman -- at least in this performance.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

The park typically employs 18 or 19 mermaids and 3 princes. The park receives applications from people all year round, and while most of the mermaids come from the Weeki Wachee area, people from across the country have applied.

Most mermaids have a lot of in-the-water experience before becoming a mermaid. Mermaid Kayla, who is 19, was a certified diver at age 14, and she studied gymnastics and dance before becoming a mermaid.

If you want to apply to become a mermaid, you'll have to pass the audition. Be sure to smile, point your toes, look comfortable in the water. Most people don't make this first cut. For the final exam, you'll have to stay underwater at the mouth of the spring and hold your breath for 2 and a half minutes while changing out of your costume.

Once you become a mermaid, these are the things you have to do:
  • Train for three months before your first show.
  • Earn minimum wage at first. So you'll probably have to take a second job. Some of the second jobs other mermaids have had include bartending at Applebee's, waitressing at Hooter's, working at a sinkhole company, and taking college classes.
  • Work six days a week.
  • Spend most of the day underwater. Each show lasts 30 minutes, and mermaids will do several shows a day. "Sometimes when I get out," Mermaid Stayce said, "my fingers and toes are numb."
  • You'll have to deal with the turtles who live in the spring and occasionally like to run into you while you're performing. Gently nudge them out of the way and continue on -- while still smiling, of course.

The turtles really liked to swim near the mermaids. They were almost part of the act, except when they bumped into the mermaids' heads
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • You'll also have to keep an eye out for alligators and thunderstorms.
  • When you get to be really experienced, you'll be able to hold your breath underwater for 2 to 3 minutes. One mermaid can hold her breath for almost 4 minutes. “The number one rule is ‘Don’t panic,’” Mermaid Karri said. “When you think you can’t hold your breath anymore, you can for another 15 to 20 seconds. Fear takes your breath away.”
  • When out of the water, maintain your mermaid persona. This includes wearing full make-up at all times. Tell children that you eat seaweed sandwiches and that your sister Ariel works at Disney and is really famous.
  • You are not allowed to unzip your tail in public view. After the show is over, we went outside the theater and ran over to the side and after a while, we saw the performers come up out of the water. They had their tails unzipped and tied around their waists so they could use their hands and feet to climb up the ladder out of the water. But we didn't see the unzipping happen.
  • You'll also have to pose for pictures with the public and sign them. We got our picture taken (I don't have it; I let Mark keep it) with Mermaid Kayla. She signed it, "Hugs + fishes, xoxo Mermaid Kayla."
  • Even if you're a prince, you'll still have to do extra work. The prince was the guy who took our photo. (His name was Wyatt Cloinger. He's 20.) When we went to collect it from the front desk, another mermaid was helping the park staff woman operate the color photo printer.
  • You might have to go on tour. The mermaids have done a few shows at the Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach and in Gatlinburg, TN. They've also been filmed for Animal Planet, swimming with manatees. They've been photographed for books and calendars.

Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida's Oldest Roadside Attractions is one of the books with lots of photos of the Weeki Wachee mermaids.

The 2010 Weeki Wachee calendar is available for $14.95 only from the park. Call (352) 592-5656 to order it. My favorite picture is November's: a mermaid is swimming toward the camera, smiling, and holding aloft on a platter a whole turkey.

  • Besides being a mermaid celebrity, you'll also have to help out with park maintenance. You have to wash the theater windows and, with a toothbrush, you have to scrub algae off the underwater castle and statues. You have to take out the trash.

You can see part of the castle behind the mermaid. The castle contains the air compressor -- notice the air hose lines going into it. It's that castle and the "floor" as well as a statue of a mer-person off to the left that the mermaids have to clean.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • You'll find that being a mermaid keeps you in shape, and that you'll also want to work out in order to keep up with the job. Mermaid Cyndi is a mother of two boys. "You immediately take 10 pounds off when you get back into the water," she said. Besides her mermaid shows, three days a week she swims for exercise, runs, and takes spin-flex classes which combine stationary biking and lifting weights. "I'm in better shape now than when I was 18," she said.
  • You'll also discover you're a mermaid at all times, even when you don't mean to be. You'll talk in your mermaid voice in class, you'll dream you're underwater being a mermaid. Sometimes when you're at area restaurants, people will recognize you and give you a free sushi roll or basket of fish & chips.
  • Even Mark and I, who were definitely not mermaids, began speaking in mermaid while we were there. Basically, insert the word "mermaid" as an adjective before everything. "Do you want to get a mermaid sandwich?" "That sounds mermaid good."
  • Years later, even after you haven't worked at Weeki Wachee in over a decade, you'll still be a mermaid. One of the shows we saw was a reunion of mermaids who had worked at the park in the 1980s. The mermaid who did the 4-minute dive was one of these die-hard mermaids. She still had the mermaid talent.
  • Even though you'll be a mermaid forever, you'll also still be a real person. You'll shower a lot, pull pranks like putting food coloring in the shower heads, get in arguments with your fellow mermaids, save up for a new car.

Mermaids with Weeki Wachee park manager Tommy Ervin in 2008
(Photo from otilius's Flickr page)

  • And like a lot of people in your twenties, you'll want to blow off steam. One fairly typical Monday night, several mermaids went out after work, accompanied by a reporter from The New York Times. At a sushi restaurant, they drank rounds of sake bombs. That evening, they got on a boat and went to an island and sat around a campfire. By midnight, they'd had tequila, beer, and vodka before they went to a BB-gun range. "We drink like fishes," one of the mermaids said.
“Everyone thinks mermaids are girly girls,” [Mermaid Virginia] said, cocking her [BB] gun and firing at empty beer cans. She hit every target.

For information about current hours which vary by season, ticket prices, and some details about diving in the springs, see the Weeki Wachee Springs Park page.

Sources, Weeki Wachee - City of Mermaids
Deborah Schoeneman, Mermaids Past and Present Keep Things Real,
The New York Times, January 6, 2008
Gretchen Parker, The Reality Of Being A Weeki Wachee Mermaid, The Tampa Tribune, May 11, 2008
Timothy P. Howsare, Weeki Wachee mermaids know how to stay fit,
Hernando Today, August 11, 2009
Ripley's Aquarium to host world famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids this weekend, SCNow, July 22, 2009
Weeki Wachee Mermaids filmed for Animal Planet segment, Orlando Sentinel, October 24, 2008


  1. Cool! I'd never heard of these before, but it sounds facsinating. You got some really good shots! It looks like it would be a fun job, but definitely not for those who couldn't really commit to it. Lots of work. I love the bubble curtain!

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  4. This looks like a wonderful show -- especially for folks like me who don't know how to swim.

  5. Hey, welcome back, Pam. And thanks, Mark. I'm glad you liked it -- since you were there & all.


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