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Last rites for the spring?

Weeki Wachee Spring and the mermaid show face an uncertain future together. Tails or no tails, the spring will be protected.

By ROBERT KING
Published August 24, 2003

[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
After meeting park visitors, Krista the mermaid is carried off to the theater dressing room. The classic roadside attraction faces an uncertain future.

[Times file photo (1961)]
A mermaid greets Elvis Presley when he visited the park. In the early days, crowds and the park's fame quickly grew.
[Times photo: Daniel Wallace]
Opening the afternoon performance, mermaid Stacey waves to the crowd at Weeki Wachee Springs recently.

WEEKI WACHEE - The Weeki Wachee Spring, a freshwater marvel that churns out 112-million gallons of water a day, is 100 feet across at its widest point.

Its current is so powerful it can knock the mask off scuba divers.

Yet, for all of Weeki Wachee's natural attributes, the thing that has always captured the imaginations of Floridians and tourists is the mermaids.

Since 1947, people have come to Hernando County to watch vivacious young women in fishtail costumes perform underwater ballet. Even Elvis Presley, during his Blue Hawaii days, stopped by in 1961.

After a half-century of tail-wagging, the aging tourist attraction at Weeki Wachee is at a crossroads that could end the mermaid shows forever - or thrust them into a golden era.

Decades of neglect by park operators, whose main interest was profit-taking, have left Weeki Wachee's paint peeling, its wood rotting and its survivability in doubt.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District has threatened to shut down Weeki Wachee out of concern for the safety of its guests and potential hazards to the river.

Trying to spare the landmark is the tiny city of Weeki Wachee, whose nine residents live within a tail splash of the spring. The city became a key player recently when it was handed a gift - the company that holds the 30-year lease to operate the park.

Now, the city that owes its existence to the Weeki Wachee Spring is hoping for a chance to turn things around.

The show was on

Weeki Wachee, one of the 65 largest natural springs in America, was purchased by the city of St. Petersburg in 1940 as a potential drinking water source.

Getting the water to St. Petersburg never proved feasible.

In 1947, former Navy frogman Newton Perry came up with the idea for underwater shows at the spring, made possible by air hoses that sent compressed air to divers.

St. Petersburg allowed a private company to lease the property and build a theater with windows 6 feet below the water line on the rim of this natural wonder.

The show was on.

In the early days, mermaids stood along the shoulder of a two-lane U.S. 19 and beckoned travelers in from what was becoming one of America's key vacation highways.

Crowds were wowed by beautiful girls "at the bottom of the sea" having picnics, playing football and drinking from Coke bottles - all between sips on their air hoses.

Weeki Wachee's fame spread.

Elvis came down and had his picture taken with a girl on each arm. Danny Thomas dropped by. So did Don Knotts, better known as Barney Fife.

But the arrival of Walt Disney World and Interstate 75 eventually put Weeki Wachee far off the beaten path of Florida tourism.

And that wasn't the only problem.

New owner takes control

In the view of the park's current caretaker, a succession of park operators let the place go.

As a landlord, St. Petersburg paid little attention. But when Swiftmud bought the property two years ago, those days were over.

Swiftmud pressured park operator Weeki Wachee LLC to shut down its aging sewage plant and tie into Hernando County's system. It feared the old plant might someday contaminate the river.

The company balked. And it didn't respond eagerly to a 3-inch-thick list of park deficiencies produced by a Swiftmud consultant.

Its patience spent, Swiftmud gave the company an ultimatum in June: Fix the problems by mid-August or the park could be shut down. Before the deadline could pass, the company's shareholders gave the company - and its problems - to the city of Weeki Wachee.

They hope to seek a tax credit for their generosity.

Swiftmud hasn't signed off on the transfer. But some of its officials, including director of land resources Fritz Musselmann, had been encouraging it.

Weeki Wachee Mayor Robyn Anderson, a former mermaid who is now the park's general manager, says city control of the lease is the answer to the park's problems. It means that profits the attraction generates will stay with the attraction. Though Anderson declined to discuss the attraction's finances, Musselmann recently told the Times the profits are about $300,000 annually.

Left to its own, Anderson says, Weeki Wachee will endure for another generation of mermaid lovers.

She plans to add another mermaid show, enhance the adjacent water park and make repairs even beyond Swiftmud's lengthy list.

The question is whether Swiftmud will give the mermaids a chance. Officials have agreed to sit down with Anderson on Monday to talk about the future.

And Swiftmud, stung by the resistance it received from the previous park manager, will be looking for signs that real change is afoot.

Swiftmud has plenty of options.

Based on the previous leaseholder's failures, Swiftmud could probably shut down the park now. It could seek another company to run it, or it could simply remake Weeki Wachee as a public park, along the lines of Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park in Citrus County.

It also could use the threat of those possibilities to force the city into a new lease that is shorter and more favorable than the current 30-year one, which expires in 2031.

Swiftmud officials say that, no matter what, the public will have access to the clear, cold waters of the spring. But they have also made it clear that their top priority is not the future of the mermaids.

It is the health of a spring that feeds 12 miles of meandering river, home to manatees, gators and an assortment of birds.

"Any decision we make is going to be in the best interest of that water resource," said Michael Molligan, a Swiftmud spokesman.

Rumors of its demise

In some ways, Weeki Wachee is like a celebrity from another era.

It has dropped so far off the tourist radar that people scratch their head, wondering whether it is alive or dead.

Steve and Carlin Beal, vacationing in Florida last week from San Diego with their 22-month-old daughter, Jordan, asked a clerk at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando about directions to Weeki Wachee.

"He said they were out of business," said Mrs. Beal, who knew better.

The family found the park anyway.

Craig Forbis of Naples remembers seeing Weeki Wachee billboards in Georgia when he was a kid heading south with his parents on a Florida vacation. And he had the urge to take his own kids to the park he loved.

But returning from a trip north last week, Forbis found that the Weeki Wachee billboards on Interstate 75 are no more. In the Gainesville motel where he spent the night, there were racks of travel brochures, but none promoting Weeki Wachee. Even in Hernando County, when he ramped off the interstate, there were no signs welcoming visitors to mermaid country.

Yet, with the recent closing of Cypress Gardens fresh in the minds of those who love old Florida attractions, Weeki Wachee may not be done.

Rumors of its demise have brought a blitz of national media coverage and a small groundswell of local support.

Little children have been handing quarters to mermaids. An old woman who draws $800 a month sent the mayor a $10 check. A radio station in Mount Sterling, Ky., gave Anderson 20 minutes to plead her case to central Kentucky listeners, all because the station owners once visited Weeki Wachee and were mermaid fans.

Chuck Morton, a Hernando County Realtor, says the mermaids are a part of Hernando County history that needs to be preserved. He is so convinced of that he gave the park $1,000.

"I don't want us to be known as the county with three Wal-Marts," Morton said.

The outpouring led Weeki Wachee to start a campaign fund it is calling "Save Our Tails." So far, it has generated about $2,000. And people also are pledging to donate labor and materials to the cause.

It is a modest start. But park marketing manager John Athanason says it shows that people still care about Weeki Wachee and its mermaids.

"This kind of makes us think this is worth fighting for," he said.

- Robert King can be reached at 352 848-1432. Send e-mail to rking@sptimes.com

[Last modified August 24, 2003, 01:47:21]


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