With a new documentary and magazine spread, the iconic Weeki Wachee mermaids are in the national spotlight this summer.
Starting decades before Walt Disney World opened, Hernando County has provided a home to “the only city of live mermaids.” Since their first show on Oct. 13, 1947, the mermaids have performed for Elvis Presley, swimming legend Esther Williams and “Andy Griffith Show” actor Don Knotts. Florida’s own Jimmy Buffett featured them in his live show.
Buffett’s daughter Delaney is behind that short documentary, which premiered in April at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.
The intrigue surrounding this “Old Florida” show is nothing new. In 1971 Clairol featured the mermaids in an advertisement. Decades later Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie auditioned to become mermaids for an episode of “The Simple Life.” Vogue, the New York Times and National Geographic have profiled this Tampa Bay area treasure.
The mermaids have performed throughout the US and the world. “We get to go to aquariums. We’re traveling,” Kristy Madden said. “We’re meeting people.”
The show’s origins
Navy Veteran Newton Perry created the mermaid show in 1946. During World War II Perry taught Navy frogmen how to swim underwater. He later trained the mermaids to use the air hoses while smiling. The performers also learned to dance and flip, drink Grapette and eat bananas – all while underwater.
In the early years, the mermaids would run to US 19 - in their bathing suits - to wave down drivers. They’d then jump in the spring and perform. In 1959 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) bought the spring, and the mermaids performed eight shows per day. This is considered the mermaid show’s heyday.
ABC built the current 400-seat submerged auditorium. The company later sold the spring.
The 1971 opening of Walt Disney World hurt Florida’s roadside tourist attractions, leaving the mermaids a bit like fish out of water. In 2008, after years of financial struggles, the state took over the show, giving the mermaids new life and putting the performers on Florida’s payroll.
Today the mermaids perform three or four shows per day – 365 days per year, weather permitting. They reenact Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and show off their acrobatic prowess in a feature called “Fish Tails.”
“I get very excited to swim and perform for the children,” Brittany Fussell said. “When I’m swimming in front of the windows, I know everyone is taking pictures and waving at me, and that’s just a really good feeling.”
Fussell, who is from Bushnell, said being a mermaid is a “dream job.” “It’s definitely magical for the kids and something for adults, too,” she said of the show.
“The audience doesn’t realize, we’re having so much fun swimming,” Cheyenne Bragg said. Bragg cheered at Hernando High School with Madden and a handful of other mermaids.
Just 11 people currently live in Weeki Wachee so there are often more mermaids in town than residents. Even Mayor Robyn Anderson is a former mermaid.
Several princes perform alongside the mermaids. On land, the princes help carry the women, as it’s not easy to walk with a tail on.
Swimming against the current
The mermaids perform in the spring at the head of the Weeki Wachee River. From the spring, the river flows 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
Turtles and fish often join the mermaids, while manatees make occasional guest appearances. From time to time a gator has stopped the show.
The spring is more than 117 feet deep. Mermaids swim 16 to 20 feet below the water’s surface – with a current that runs about five miles per hour. They’ve got to dance and flip in 74-degree water. And they do it all while wearing tails and using free-flowing air hoses to breathe.
Auditions are tough. Candidates must swim 400 yards against the current, flip underwater and show their ballet moves. They also practice smiling – while holding their breath.
Once selected, rookies spend months training before they perform in shows. They must become scuba and CPR certified.
Fussell joined the team a year ago but just performed her first show in February. “I didn’t realize, kind of, what I signed up for,” she said. “Now that I perform shows, I definitely have a new respect for the girls and what they do because I definitely understand now how difficult it is.”
Because the job can be dangerous, the mermaids learn to trust and rely on one another. They’ve formed a sisterhood of sorts.
“When one of us leaves it’s like the end of the world,” Bragg said.
The performance schedule and camp information can be found here.
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