Historical Society Presents Weeki Watchee: City Of Mermaids

When writer and Florida native Lu Vickers began doing research for an upcoming novel she found the factual accounts associated with “tales of yesteryear” so enthralling that she decided to put fiction aside and write about history instead. What resulted was a book entitled “Weeki Wachee, City of Mermaids: A History of One of Florida’s Oldest Roadside Attractions.” Dr. Vickers shared oral histories, videos and vintage photographs about that attraction and its creator, Newton Perry, at a Palm Coast Historical Society Speaker Event on Saturday, May 21, 2022.
Florida has been attracting tourists to its warm climate and natural resources since the 19th century. Silver and Wakulla Springs not only attracted tourists but also movie producers to its crystal clear waters in the 1920’s and 1930’s.
Perry lived in nearby Ocala. Following a career as a swim coach and instructor he began appearing in newsreels while performing underwater stunts like riding a bike or drinking at a bar, earning the nickname the “human fish” for his incredible strength and stamina as a swimmer.
He befriended and influenced many in the business including Hollywood star Johnny Weissmuller whose classic Tarzan movies were shot on location at the springs.
After World War II, when a number of entrepreneurs began developing roadside attractions, Perry dreamed of creating his own mythical world of mermaids. He eventually brought his fantasy to life at Weeki Wachee Springs in 1947. The name, derived from Seminole Indians, means “little spring” or “winding river.” According to folklore the locals nicknamed the area “weekly washing” because it was used as a swimming hole and laundry facility.
Reportedly, area residents were not happy to one day find the area roped off and access restricted, but local teens soon embraced the venture and auditioned to become mermaids and mermen. To pass the test they had to swim 400 yards across the spring which averages 74 degrees. Perry built a theater in the limestone with windows that looked out into the water.
Synchronized swimmers like the Aqua Belles from St. Petersburg performed in the initial shows. They executed their routines on the surface of the water without mermaid tails.
In the early days film crews recorded underwater scenes using cameras inserted into a steel cylinder and then submerged. The technology of waterproof cameras had not yet been invented. Set pieces were weighted. After performers acted underwater they re-surfaced to take a gulp of air. Scenes were later edited together.
Helmeted divers at Tarpon Springs inspired Perry to develop new concepts for breathing underwater. He built “air locks” which were small rooms where mermaids could retreat to take a breath. He wanted everyone to look natural and comfortable as they performed everyday tasks like eating and drinking. To be sure they were alluring he began attending beauty contests to recruit mermaids.
The American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) bought Weeki Wachee in 1959 and built a new theater. With increased funding came new technology and more elaborate productions. The development of lycra and spandex allowed designers to create more intricate costumes. Hoses provided compressed air which allowed mermaids to perform longer routines that averaged 25 minutes while submerged in chilly water. Modern mermaids had to be incredible athletes.
To draw more visitors to the attraction Weeki Wachee incorporated in 1966 and officially became known as the “City of Live Mermaids” with a road sign along I-75. Initially when Disney World opened in 1970 it was good for other area attractions. As the complex grew, however, tourists remained on site which hurt attendance at other facilities. Ownership of Weeki Wachee changed hands several times over the following decades. By 2008 the State of Florida purchased the property and designated it as a State Park. Weeki Wachee still offers mermaid shows and other opportunities for recreation. In January 2020 the legendary roadside attraction was added to the National Register of Historic Places, one of 1800 in the state.
To follow the events of the Palm Coast Historical Society you can visit www.palmcoasthistory.org.