In case you haven’t heard–Florida has been a popular travel destination long before Disney World. The big draws were the exotic, pristine beaches, salt-tinged air, lines of green palm trees, and the romanticism of the whole affair. But it wasn’t just that. There were pockets of uniquely only-in-Florida side-road attractions that included interesting characters, glass bottom boats, alligator wrestlers, and–yes–the world-famous Weeki Wachee Springs.
It all started in 1947 with a man by the name of Newt Perry. He was a Floridian native who grew up first in Tampa and then in Ocala. He spent most of his formative years mastering the sport of swimming in the clear waters of Silver Springs. In 1924, at the age of 16, he simultaneously served as Ocala High School’s swim coach and star swimmer. He attended college at the University of Florida and competed on the Florida Gator’s swimming and diving team.
In the 1920s, the American Red Cross chose Silver Springs for shooting their underwater photos for their aquatics safety manual. Newt was the model for many of their photos. Also, to boost awareness of the attraction, the owners invited journalists from all over the country to visit, in which Newt and his sisters would put on swimming exhibitions. Many of the shots from these visits would appear in major newspapers and magazines. He developed of the Weeki Wachee attraction and based it on underwater air breathing hoses. He is said to even have put on the first show.
An 18 seat theater was cut into the limestone rock, and then later increased to 50, in an aquarium type setting in which the seats are set below the waterline and view the theater through large windows to watch the performers–beautiful women dressed in elaborate mermaid costumes. It wasn’t long until Weeki Wachee Springs became a regular stop for those coming down on US 19 from the North.
Time passes. Massive theme parks move in. Old Florida attractions die…and yet Weeki Wachee lives on. There’s a reason for that.
Weeki Wachee, after all these years, is still a vibrant place of Florida culture and life. It’s like walking back in time and experiencing what they did back in the day when families came down in their big boxy Chevy’s.
I went on a cold November day, as is my habit to go to attractions off-season. I had nearly the whole place to myself with my family. There was only a small crowd present. The grounds were well-kept and there was plenty to explore–because Weeki Wachee, although famous for mermaids, offers much more than that.
There was an animal show in which the speaker held a baby alligator, and the kiddies were allowed to come up and pet its tail at the end of the talk. All the brave little ones squealed and yelped when they touched it. It was adorable.
Perhaps my favorite thing was the guided boat tour down Weeki Wachee river. The knowledgeable guide pointed out a bald eagle’s nest up in the trees that had babies in it, different types of trees, explained the history of the river, and we also found several manatees that swam along beside us. It was incredible to see the massive, tame animals in the wild–one of Florida’s greatest treasures.