The day after we visited Weeki Wachee Springs the park blew up.
The New York Times published a six-page writeup about the spot where 24 hours earlier nine friends and I had drank beers and bobbed in the 72-degree water. Suddenly the river where I spent my childhood summers was on Slate and Jezebel. My Twitter feed became clogged with links about mermaids.
Weeki Wachee’s most popular attraction is an underwater theater where women wearing seashells and tails perform The Little Mermaid. They lip sync about their desire to live on land while breathing through hoses and swimming against the current of the freshwater spring below them.
Some say it’s hokey. I think it’s magic.
In The Last Mermaid Show, the New York Times traces Weeki Wachee Springs’ 40-year history as it morphed from a community swimming hole, to a thriving theme park, to a struggling state park.
The story snakes through my hometown, which writer Virginia Sole-Smith describes as “mile after mile of swamp and farmland … dotted with pawn shops looking to buy guns and gold, and billboards with photographs of babies and reminders that ‘my heart beat 18 days from conception.’ Strip malls were broken up by new town-home complexes, old trailer parks and churches.”
Spot on. Though she didn’t mention the confederate soldier statue on the lawn of the county courthouse. Or the dragonflies that follow your boat as it rides the current seven miles downstream to the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico. On the way you’ll pass the wooden dock where my mom married my stepdad.
“I don’t think there’s any rural place in the country that is like Central Florida,” Virginia told me.
She was gracious enough to accept my interview request. I was curious how a reporter from the outskirts of New York City had found our roadside attraction.
Did she read about the time Elvis visited? See the park clips that Jimmy Buffet uses in his concerts? Or perhaps watch the segment Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie taped for their brief reality show, “The Simple Life 2?”
None of the above. Virginia first read about Weeki Wachee in the novel Swim to Me by Betsy Carter. (Affiliate link.) But she didn’t realize it was a real place until a few years later.
“It got in my head. I said I’ve got to go this place and meet these mermaids and find out what this is about,” Virginia said.
As a writer, Virginia explores the sweet spot where women, work and cultural beauty standards intersect. She’s written about the dangers of working in a nail salon for The Investigative Fund, and gone undercover as a Mary Kay lady in Harper’s The Pink Pyramid Scheme. She even learned how to give brazilian waxes for Slate.
Now the mermaids were on her radar.
So she flew down and spent a week at the Holiday Inn Express across the street from a Chevrolet dealer and the mobile home park where my grandparents used to live.
In the article, Virginia chronicled the mermaids’ evolution from local teens who worked in exchange for swimsuits, to state park employees who earn $10 – $13 per hour. She hung out backstage with them as they smoked cigarettes and debated whether to go to Hooters or Applebees after work. Current and former performers wondered why The Little Mermaid has to get married at 15 and why there can’t be mermen in the show.
“You can dismiss them as just these pretty girls, but there is a real wildness there,” Carolyn Turgeon said in her interview with Virginia. She wrote the book Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale
(another affiliate link) and had attended a camp at the springs that encourages women 30 and up to find their “inner mermaid.”
“They are sexualized and desexualized at the same time. So they make a good symbol for a lot of women who are trying to negotiate being strong but still accessible and lovable.”
“It’s an extension of a conversation that happens a lot in feminism today,” Virginia told me. “You take something that on the surface is incredibly objectifying to women, but they turn it on their head and make it their own.”
Virginia was six months pregnant when she visited Weeki Wachee. In the weeks before her trip, she felt nauseous and exhausted, racked by migraines.
Her visit coincided with a turning point in her pregnancy. She was feeling better, and when given the opportunity to try her hand at mermaid-ing she readily accepted.
“When you’re pregnant people treat you like you’re so fragile,” Virginia told me. “I was like, screw that, I’m going to put on a tail.”
Her daughter is due August ninth. If the child goes through an “Ariel phase,” Virginia said she is excited to tell her daughter about the mermaids of Weeki Wachee.
They’re not Disney princesses who trade their voice for love. They’re strong women, professional athletes and talented performers.
“It’s not just about looking pretty in a tail,” Virginia said.
Jimmy Buffet uses scenes of the Weeki Wachee mermaids during his performances. Video care of Weeki Wachee’s Facebook page.