Originally created 09/14/03

Weeki Wachee's mermaids fighting extinction



WEEKI WACHEE, Fla. -- The mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs are holding their collective breath.

Actually, they do that at times every day when they wiggle into their Lycra fish tails and perform in the underwater theater at the venerable roadside theme park. But this is different.

The dozen or so mermaids - and everybody else who works at the 56-year-old attraction - could well be facing extinction. They're worried that the place will be forced to close soon, that they will never again perform their graceful ballet in the clear, shimmering water of the natural spring.

Once a jewel in the crown of pre-Disney Florida, the attraction an hour north of Tampa has fallen on hard times, and its new owner - the city of Weeki Wachee, pop. 9 - is scrambling this month to keep it afloat.

The city was given until Monday to submit a business plan to the Southwest Florida Water Management District, a state agency that manages the land and the spring. The city must show it can afford to spruce up the long-neglected park and bring back the crowds.

The agency's governing board will sit down later this month and decide whether to pull the plug, perhaps converting Weeki Wachee into a state park.

A lot of people don't want to see that happen.

"It's a part of history," said Robyn Anderson, a 29-year-old former mermaid who does double duty as park general manager and Weeki Wachee mayor. "It's nostalgia, it's tradition. It's worth saving. It's worth fighting for."

Before the Orlando theme-park empire began, before the interstate highways cut great, high-speed swaths through the peninsula, Weeki Wachee's mermaids made the park one of Florida's top tourist stops.

Situated along U.S. 19 - a major tourist trail in the days before Interstate 75 - Weeki Wachee Springs debuted its underwater show in 1947, featuring comely young lasses in fish tails, breathing compressed air through hoses as they somersaulted and backflipped through choreographed routines. Appreciative visitors, as many as 1 million a year, watched from windows in the underwater theater.

The glamorous mermaids were once known far and wide. Elvis Presley visited once when he was filming a movie nearby. The walls of the theater are filled with black-and-white snapshots of mermaids canoodling with Hollywood stars such as Don Knotts, Danny Thomas and Martin Milner.

Barbara Wynns grew up in Florida and knew early that she was destined to be a part of the magic.

"When I saw the attraction at 13, that was it - I wasn't getting married, I wasn't going to have an education, I wasn't going to be a mother - I was going to be a mermaid," said the 54-year-old Wynns, who swam from 1967 to '75 and still performs once a month with former mermaids as old as 73.

"I know the beauty of what we can make the people experience when they come here if we're just given the chance," she said. "If it closes, I just can't comprehend that."

Weeki Wachee Springs initially benefited when Walt Disney World opened an hour away in Orlando in 1971. Tourists looking for other diversions drove over to see the mermaids and live animal shows. But as Disney added more parks and other Orlando attractions sprang up, vacationers didn't have time for the road trip anymore.

The attraction slipped into disrepair in the 1980s and '90s, its absentee owners putting little money back in to the business. In recent years, much of the revenue was derived from its Buccaneer Bay water park.

The sharks started circling in June, when the water management agency threatened to end the lease if the group of investors who owned Weeki Wachee didn't bring dilapidated buildings up to code, deal with a termite infestation and hook its sewers into the county's system.

Unable to find a buyer, the owners proposed donating the park to the city for the tax credit.

"It wasn't a gift, let's put it that way," said Anderson, who has worked there in various roles for a decade. "I took on a headache, but it's worth it."

The city assumed control Aug. 1 and immediately got to work, rebuilding wooden decks, fixing up the mermaid theater and restaurant, and tearing down the termite-ridden amphitheater that was home to exotic animal shows. Much of the lumber and labor is being donated by people concerned about the park's future.

"We've done more in the past three or four weeks than (the previous owners) did in the last three or four years," marketing manager John Athanason said.

Michael Molligan, spokesman for the water agency, said Anderson and the city have their work cut out for them. The list of deficiencies is 3 inches thick, and the agency is eager to see a time line for the improvements, he said.

Athanason has busied himself in recent weeks accommodating national media that has caught wind of Weeki Wachee's plight, kick-starting a "Save Our Tails" campaign that has so far netted about $5,000 in donations.

Megan Bryda, 24, has been a mermaid since 1997, except for a short stint in the airline industry that wasn't nearly as satisfying. Despite the rigid training, physically demanding routines and $6.50-an-hour starting pay, being a mermaid, she said, is a job unlike any other. She understands why the former mermaids clamor to swim in the reunion shows.

"I can see myself being like that at their age and wanting to come back," Bryda said, "whether it's to do a show or just swim in the water and look back at those pictures and say, 'I was a mermaid.' It's something rare, and I don't want to see it go away."

On the Net:

Weeki Wachee Springs: http://www.weekiwachee.com