Are mermaids only found in fantasies or do they exist? About an hour’s drive north of Tampa is the city of Weeki Wachee and home to Weeki Wachee Springs where mermaids gracefully perform and delight visitors. The city was incorporated in 1966 and as of the 2010 census, the population is 12 residents. Robyn Anderson, the Weeki Wachee’s mayor, is a former mermaid and the municipality calls itself “the only city of live mermaids.”
When Vicki Smith graduated high school in the late 1950s, she said young women who grew up in Brooksville, Fla., had three options, “You either got married, or you went off to school, or heck, you became a Weekie Wachee mermaid! And that’s what I did and I never regretted it.”
Between 1957 and 1961, Ms. Smith was one of dozens of young women who dazzled tourists with underwater performances in Weekie Wachee Springs, located about a three-hour drive north of Charlotte County in the City of Weekie Wachee. It’s a first magnitude spring and pumps out more than 117 million gallons of water at a constant 74 degrees.
At 79 years old, Ms. Smith continues to perform underwater aquabatics with a handful of other mermaid alumni, called the Legendary Sirens. They perform about once a month and a Siren said although her land-body is 66 years old, her water-body is still 19.
Weekie Wachee Springs opened as a tourist attraction on Oct. 13, 1947 and was the vision of World War II Navy frogmen trainer, Newt Perry. He built a small tank looking into the crystal-clear waters of the first magnitude spring and it served as the theater tourists sat and watched the underwater ballets and mermaid picnics. The original performers did not wear mermaid tales but attractive costumes and breathed through hoses with compressed air.
The original theater (tank) was replaced by a bigger one in 1959 and the springs became a state park on Nov. 1, 2008. Today, 15 mermaids and four princes (men) perform 16 – 20 feet below the springs’ surface. They perform two shows, one is based on Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” and the other is called “Fish Tail”” which tells the history of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.
Girls who live in Brooksville and Tampa Bay still grow up with dreams of becoming Weeki Wachee mermaids. Mermaid Kelley is one of those young women. She is from Brooksville and has worked at the springs for about two and a half years. Her sister is a mermaid and inspired her to audition and encouraged her when training was challenging. The initial mermaid audition includes swimming 300 yards and treading water for 10 minutes. Those selected then advance to training for three to six months before being added to portions of performances.
What’s the most difficult part about being a mermaid? According to Mermaid Kelley, it’s “breathing under water. It’s a mind game. Whenever I started, I wanted to go up for air but you have to just tell yourself to stay under and you have air right in your hand and you just get used to it.”
In addition to enjoying the mermaid shows, visitors can take a leisurely boat tour over the clear waters of the Weeki Wachee River which is fed by Weeki Wachee Springs. The park is home to Buccaneer Bay, a spring-fed waterpark with four waterslides.
For an active adventure, rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board with Boating in Florida, the only kayak and SUP board rental facility at Weekie Wachee Springs State Park. Paddle the gorgeous 5.5 miles down the Weeki Wachee River, sometimes shaded by oak and cypress trees. Wildlife that has been seen include a variety of fish, turtles, birds, otters, deer, and manatees. And, I did see a sign warning about paddling through water moccasin territory. What I found fascinating was seeing a light fog hover over the river. The air temperature had to be at least 80 degrees and the cypress trees acted as a filter for the sun, creating distinguished beams of light. It was an experience best enjoyed in the moment and not through a camera lens.
Swimming is permitted one-mile out from the launch point. The one-way journey winds through public and private land and ends at Rogers Park where you hop on the shuttle back to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Without stopping it is about a three-hour paddle.
BeckyJack’s Food Shack for Lunch in Weeki Wachee
Paddling works up an appetite and BeckyJack’s Food Shack is the perfect place to refuel on fresh seafood and is about a hop, skip and a jump from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. Its signature entrée is the crunchy fish and it can be enjoyed as a sandwich or standalone entrée with a couple of sides. As the name implies, it’s a shack and not fancy at all. It is funky and has a laidback vibe where service is friendly and quick.
Eat Like a King at Coney Island Drive-Inn
Rumor has it Elvis at the world-famous “Brooksvegas” (Brooksville) footlong hot dog joint during his 1961 visit when he was filming Follow That Dream in nearby Citrus County. He visited the mermaids at Weeki Wachee and as Vicki Smith said, “he was soooo cute, then so was I in 1961.”
I was a little overwhelmed with my visit to Coney Island Drive-Inn and made a very quick stop because I needed to get home. I ordered my footlong with Coney sauce and onions I should have ordered Norm’s Big Dog with loose meat, chili, cheese, slaw and onion rings but didn’t think that would be practical eating while driving. See the short video above for a taste of Coney Island Drive-Inn in Brooksville, Fla.
Marker 48 Brewing for Craft Beer Near Weeki Wachee
Paddling can also leave an adventurer thirsty and Hernando County’s first and only full-production craft brewery is a short distance from Weeki Wachee. Called Marker 48 Brewing, this is the place for those 21 and over to rehydrate with a beers brewed onsite. Enjoy stouts, IPAs, Wheats, Pale Ales, and Lagers. The building is a former oil-change shop so ladies, don’t wear a skirt or dress if you plan on sitting at one of the tables.
Beneath the tables you’ll peer into the aging room which doubles as a function room. Military veterans are invited to sign the huge, wooden American flag that was installed when the brewery and tasting room opened. And, keep with the mermaid theme and order the Mermaid Milk Stout. It’s described as chocolate, roasty, sweet brewed with lactose.
NJoy Spirit’s Distillery to Taste Spirits Near Weeki Wachee
Natalie Joy and Kevin Goff purchased an 80-acre hunting camp in the middle of the Chassahowitzka Wildlife Management Area in Brooksville. They grow rye and sugar cane and distill whiskey, moonshine and rum and use twice-filtered rain water captured on site. Stick with the theme and sample their award-winning Mermaid Rum which is smooth and subtly sweet. It’s fun visiting their farm and tastings and tours are offered on the weekends. Learn more in this post about Brooksville’s distillery in the wilds of Florida.
Vicki Smith, the oldest performing mermaid, described her experience as a fulltime mermaid as a “magic you can’t explain.” For a small city, Weeki Wachee holds an important, fun, and big part of Florida’s heritage making it worth the trip in a quest to feel some of that magic.
Nuts & Bolts About Visiting Weeki Wachee Springs and Hernando County
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way
Weeki Wachee FL 34606
Tel: (352) 592-5656
Florida’s Adventure Coast – Visitor information about Weeki Wachee, Brooksville, and Hernando County
Tel: (800) 601-4580
Where to Eat
BeckyJack’s Food Shack
8070 Cortez Blvd.
Weeki Wachee, Fla. 34607
Tel: (352) 610-4412
Open Wednesday – Sunday; very casual but good seafood.
Coney Island Drive-Inn
1112 E. Jefferson St.
Brooksville, Fla. 34601
Tel: (352) 796-9141
Legends states Elvis ate there.
Where to Sip a Beverage
Marker 48 Brewing
12147 Cortez Blvd.
Brooksville, Fla. 34613
Tel: (352) 606-2509
NJoy Spirit’s Distillery
13243 Commercial Way (US Highway 19 North)
Brooksville, Fla. 34614
Tel: (352) 592-9622
www.wildbuckwhiskey.comWhere to Stay
Holiday Inn Express Spring Hill
3528 Commercial Way – US 19
Spring Hill, Fla. 34606
Tel: (352) 683-5100
Disclosure: I was an attendee of the 2018 Florida Outdoor Writers Association Annual Conference and part of my registration included access to several attractions. Opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links to support this blog, my traveling habit, and my special-needs dog.