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'This was the best day of my life'

By DONNA WINCHESTER
Published April 13, 2007


Emily McGeorge drops down on the dock and inches herself to the edge. She dips her toes in the water, shivers.

Now that the moment she has waited for is here, the tanned, toned arms reaching out for her seem so far away.

"Come on, Emily! Just jump in," Mermaid Denise calls out.

Emily closes her eyes, holds her nose, propels herself forward. And just like that, she's in the water.

Denise McGrath and fellow mermaid Marcy Terry are beside her in an instant, slipping a red float under her torso. Minutes later, the three are positioned in front of the panoramic window of Weeki Wachee Springs' underwater theater.

All hesitation vanishes as Weeki Wachee's special mermaid-for-a-day takes center stage.

* * *

The well-known Florida attraction contacted Emily's parents in March after a story about her appeared in the St. Petersburg Times.

The 18-year-old, who has Down's syndrome, had starred in six performances of The Little Mermaid at her school, Nina Harris Exceptional Student Education Center in Pinellas Park.

Weeki Wachee Springs general manager Robyn Anderson offered Emily a "mermaid makeover," a photo session, and a chance to swim with the park's famous mermaids, a $200 package, at no charge.

Pam and Gordon McGeorge took off from work Thursday to drive Emily to Weeki Wachee from their home in St. Petersburg. To make it an extra-special treat, they left the evening before and spent the night at a motel.

"She didn't know what Weeki Wachee was," Pam McGeorge said. "We had to explain to her it's the place where the mermaids swim."

The next thing Pam knew, Emily was telling her, "I'm going to swim with mermaids like me."

* * *

Preparations for Emily's special day began in the theme park's gift shop. Anderson, formerly known as "Mermaid Robyn," gathered trinkets she thought Emily might like: a turquoise T-shirt, a silver-tone mermaid pendant, a hairbrush with a handle shaped like a mermaid's tail.

First stop on a park tour was the costume room, where Emily eyed a gossamer mermaid tail dripping with sequins. Anderson explained to Pam and Gordon that Emily would wear a mermaid tail for her photo session, but not in the water because the tail restricts mobility.

"It's not easy being a mermaid," Anderson told them.

Emily toured the underwater theater, then sat still as Mermaid Denise brushed blue shadow on her eyelids, the exact shade of the tail she'd selected for Emily.

Next stop was the 11 a.m. show, the park's own version of The Little Mermaid. Emily leaned forward when the prince appeared and stood when the Little Mermaid got her land legs. She covered her face when the evil sea witch whipped the water to foam.

She didn't hesitate when her mother asked her which prince was more handsome, the Weeki Wachee prince or the prince from her school play.

"My prince," Emily said, blushing.

* * *

Just after noon, the magical moment arrives. Emily's parents wait in the darkened underwater theater for the first glimpse of their daughter.

"There she is!" Pam squeals when Emily comes into view.

As Emily bobs up and down on the spring's surface and makes "fishy faces" against the window, Pam and Gordon motion for her to go under water. Finally, Mermaid Marcy holds up one finger, two fingers, three fingers.

Emily squeezes her eyes shut, goes under and comes up laughing.

Twenty minutes and scores of photos later, Mermaids Denise and Marcy lead Emily back to the dock. They help her out of the water and wrap her in a blue beach towel. Back in the mermaid lounge, they present her with a certificate of completion from mermaid school and a T-shirt signed "with hugs and fishes" from all the mermaids.

"I hope you had fun today," Mermaid Denise tells her. "You were a good mermaid."

Emily, her hair streaming and eyes shining, hugs Mermaid Denise, turns away and comes back to hug her again.

"This was the best day of my life," she says.

"I think you made her day," Pam McGeorge tells the mermaids. "I think you made her life."