Swimming Pinups: The Weeki Wachee Mermaids

Posted by Liz T. on

vintage brochure advertising weeki wachee springs 1949

Weeki Wachee Springs, Florida has been the home of a legendary mermaid show since 1947, in which talented and glamorous swimmers perform in a crystal-clear natural spring. The audience watches these timeless performances from a man-made theater that is embedded in the side of the spring and submerged 16 feet below the surface. The Weeki Wachee show was created by Newton Perry, a former US Navy Seal Instructor and noted swim performer, who turned this stunning natural feature into the ultimate 1950s roadside attraction. 

Bonnie Georgiadis Feeding Fish 1967

Weeki Wachee is the deepest known freshwater cave system in the United States and the actual bottom of the spring has yet to be found. The current within the spring is so strong that it can knock a scuba diver’s mask off - staying in one place for a performance is harder than it looks! The uncomfortably cold water and the danger of lightning strikes, plus the not-uncommon alligator & water moccasin visits, keep all of the performers on their fins. However, many wouldn't trade the surreal underwater experience for anything in the world.  

Mermaid Bonita Colson 1960

The original mermaids of Weeki Wachee performed in one-piece swim outfits and themed costumes. The available mermaid tails of the time were heavy rubber contraptions that were suitable only for photo-ops rather than action. Modern mermaids now perform in thin fabric fishtails, but continue to use the system of free-floating breathing tubes designed by Perry when the attraction first opened. Taking discreet gulps of air from these tubes rather than relying on bulky SCUBA equipment allows the performers to stay underwater for the whole 30 minute performance while appearing unencumbered and truly mermaid-like. 

Nancy Tribble, Dick Woolery and Eleanor Nichols 1949

The audition process is arduous for even very experienced swimmers. By the time a mermaid performs in her first show, she is an expert diver who can control her position in the water solely through breath control. The mermaids perform aquatic ballet choreography in the dappled underwater sunlight, hand-feed the fish and turtles that share the spring, and even eat and drink underwater. A popular trick involves the mermaids drinking a soda bottle in a single breath. A press clipping from 1969 mentioned that the mermaids were going through at least 2,500 bananas a year during their performances!

Elvis Presley with Weeki Wachee Mermaids 1951

In the late 50s, the original silent shows were expanded into themed performances synced to music, but many of the original elements of the mermaids' performances exist still today. At the height of its popularity, women would come from around the globe to audition for the privilege of being a mermaid, and celebrities frequently visited the park. The spring and its mermaids have been featured frequently in articles, traveling shows, fashion shoots, and even in movies, including the 1948 "Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid."  

aquarena springs postcard ralph the swimming pig aquamaid

Weeki Wachee is not the only attraction that offered "real live mermaids" during the height of the roadside attraction era. Aquarena Springs Park in San Marcos, TX, featured live mermaids performing to a submersible theatre, although with a very Texan twist: the "aquamaids" were joined by Ralph the Swimming Pig and Glurpo, the clown who smoked underwater. The Aquarena Springs area is now a preserve and educational center that has been returned to a more natural state.

Ginger Stanley and Merle Ivey 1951 Weeki Wachee Mermaids

Several of Weeki Wachee's early mermaids have returned over the years for special shows, citing a common saying at the spring: once a mermaid, always a mermaid. If you're feeling the call of the spring and want to live out your mermaid fantasies, you're in luck - although spaces fill very quickly, the park offers Mermaid Summer Camps for children AND adults! 

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