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Grab a life jacket; an old friend is sinking

By CHASE SQUIRES, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 14, 2003

If there's a better place to tether a giant plastic sea horse than inside one of Florida's Majestic Natural Springs, I haven't seen it.

So why isn't Weeki Wachee Springs the happiest place on earth? It has a giant plastic sea horse, an underwater dancing turtle in plaid boxer shorts, and a guy in a pirate shirt trying to make time with a mermaid who just turned 15.

Kind of like a party I went to in college. I swear the turtle was 18.

Here's the thing. The Southwest Florida Water Management District might boot the whole happy caravan out on the street. Mermaids flopping in the gutter like worms on hot pavement after a rain, sea horses working the petting zoo circuit. Not pretty.

The district owns the park and leases it to the Hernando County city of Weeki Wachee, population 9. But concerns over the sewer system, maintenance and fiscal realities threaten to close it.

"Hey," I hear you say. "We can't let this happen! Where will our children learn about Florida's Majestic Natural Springs?"

Red Lobster commercials don't count.

Sure, now you're talking pretty big about saving the park, but where were you last week when I visited?

Walk into the Weeki Wachee park, and it's lonely. You can feel the park's aging bones creaking. It needs paint. Some stuff just needs to be reopened. Some stuff needs to be torn down.

The park's "Tranquility Trail" is pretty darn tranquil.

Of course, not all is quiet. Across the spring, the park's sister attraction, Buccaneer Bay water park (all part of the same admission, in season), was loaded with youngsters learning about Majestic Natural Springs by sliding down majestic giant water slides.

(A gross observation: Every time I go to a water park, I end up with somebody else's dirty Band-Aid hanging from the hairs on my lower leg. I'm like a magnet. That, or I step in something warm and sticky. That's no reflection on any park, it's just a phenomenon. Like gravity.)

But in the classic part of the park, the part that opened in 1947, there were few gawkers to take in the lecture on misunderstood iguanas, to see the underwater dancing mermaid show, or to hear Capt. Lloyd on the river tour provide instructions for happy living: "Put Spanish moss in your microwave."

Maybe it's telling that as a flock of wood storks leaned out over the passing boat for a dead-fish handout, Capt. Lloyd announced the wood stork is kin to the vulture.

One of the two river tour boats was out of commission. The Riverside Theater was closed. I couldn't find the Mermaid Museum, or if I did, it looked an awful lot like a snack bar.

But there is a beating heart amid the dust. A flash in the eye of an aging beauty.

The mermaid show is inspired lunacy. An entire wall of the park's Majestic Natural Spring is replaced by glass, revealing the wonders of the deep.

Parents, grandparents and kids line bench seats to marvel as women with fish tails breathe from pressurized air tubes and lip-synch song and dance numbers, revealing the story of a 15-year-old mermette who falls for a drowning prince in a pirate shirt, then gets hassled by a wicked sea witch.

I won't spoil the ending for you.

Eddie Cortazzo, 76, sat in front of me. He was fascinated with how the mermaids could lip-synch to music they couldn't hear.

It's as hokey as it sounds, and it's a blast.

Children sneak to the front to peek beneath the curtain before the show. Older spectators catch a glimpse of the old roadside Florida, before gated communities and $50-a-day theme park admissions.

Sunlight filters through the spring and dances in the neon-colored hair of the wicked sea witch, and all is right with the world.

On the lobby walls, photos of America's screen giants who have visited the park: Elvis, Don Knotts, Arthur Godfrey and Deborah "Gidget" Walley.

After all, Don Knotts was the Incredible Mr. Limpet.

Mr. Limpet, use your powers.

Weeki Wachee Springs is barely treading water. Supporters have until Monday to prepare a business plan. On Sept. 23, the water management board is expected to decide the park's fate.

The mermaids could be sunk.

Weeki Wachee Mayor - and former mermaid - Robyn Anderson says a plan will be ready. It's a good plan, she said. The park can work, she said.

I know, the place is a bit silly, maybe even too innocent in an era of megaparks. And it sure ain't Disney.

But that's another reason to save it.

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