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Weeki Wachee mermaids visit kids virtually in the hospital

Lydia Byrd and Brittany Ellis both moved to Florida to pursue dreams of becoming mermaids. They participated in ZOOM calls Thursday with kids facing health battles.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Editor's Note: The photo above is a file photo from before the mermaid visits when virtual.

It’s been a long 157 days for the mermaids of Weeki Wachee. No guests have entered the world-famous park due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Mermaids still gather there to practice routines and stay fresh.

But, not having people to entertain has been difficult.

“This is why we do this job,” said Brittany Ellis, who has served as a mermaid since 2018. “Kids are so enthralled with mermaids. Usually, we get to see kids all the time; so it’s been hard not to get to see their reaction. They are the excitement, the wonder for us.”

Ellie and fellow entertainer Lydia Byrd both started as mermaids on the same day over two years ago. The chance to swim and perform for kids drew them to the Tampa Bay landmark from Ohio and North Carolina, respectively.

“I wanted to be a part of bringing some joy into these kid’s lives,” said Byrd via ZOOM call, dressed in a multi-colored mermaid tail. “I’m just happy that we get the opportunity.”

Both women have been waiting for a day like today. Typically, Weeki Wachee mermaids travel to visit sick kids at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital each year. COVID will not allow in-person visits this time around, but both Ellis and Byrd agreed to a virtual meet-and-greet with patients via ZOOM call on Thursday.

“It’s nice to see you! I’m Mermaid Brittany,” Ellis said to the first child of the day. “It’s nice to meet you. Do you like my tail?”

Child after child smiled at the screen as they, and the mermaids, swapped stories. Hospital employees walked a cell phone from room to room. A busy afternoon of nurses and doctors were interrupted by two mermaids hoping to inspire some smiles – and a distraction from being stuck in a hospital bed.

“What did the ocean say to the mermaid?” prompted Ellis. A little girl in a floral mask shrugged.

“Nothing,” smiled Ellis. “It just waved.”

Giggles ensued.

Byrd understands the frustrations that come with being sick as a child. She was diagnoses with a form of liver cancer when she was just eight months old and dealt with complications while growing up. She hoped her experience would be a bridge to connect her with some of the young people facing disease at JHACH.

“It reminded me that I should not take anything for granted,” said Byrd, who moved to Florida just to be a Weeki Wachee mermaid and was part of the in-person group trip to All Children’s back in 2018. “I hope that these kids can really be as excited as I am to be talking with them.”

For nearly two hours, Ellis and Byrd sat in their tails and chatted with kids through the cell phone. They laughed and told “mermaid jokes”. They smiled and kids and got plenty in return. Ellis, who has performed her mermaid show for her cousin, Jessie, with Down Syndrome, even spoke Spanish with one young girl.

It was a much-needed moment for everyone involved.

“Have you ever heard of Weeki Wachee?” asked Byrd. “I have 18 mermaid sisters here.”

Weeki Wachee mermaids have visited All Children’s routinely for seven years. The hospital also did a similar virtual meet-and-greet in August with Tampa Bay Lightning player Pat Maroon. Interacting with patients looks different due to the pandemic the All Children’s says it’s a meaningful way to uplift kids during a time of need.

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