The Weeki Wachee Mermaids: An Old Florida Roadside Attraction
Do you have a “thing” that you’ve wanted to do since you were a kid? Something that seemed so fantastic and wonderful as a child and as an adult you know it’s probably pretty silly but you just can’t let go of it?
Well, my “thing” has always been the Weeki Wachee Mermaids. Yep, MERMAIDS. In a somewhat remote part of Florida, there’s a beautiful natural spring where live mermaids have been performing an underwater show for visitors since 1947. Isn’t that just the greatest thing you’ve ever heard?? Once Florida’s most popular attraction (until the mouse moved into Orlando), the mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs are one of the few remaining truly great old Florida roadside attractions.
Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is an easy day trip from Tampa or Orlando and although it sounds a little kitschy (it IS kitschy), it’s also VERY popular. In a world where kids are so glued to screens and devices, it’s nice to know that spending a day swimming around the springs with the mermaids is such a crowd pleaser.
There are two big draws to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: the springs themselves and the mermaids.
A visit to the springs is like spending a day at the swimming hole. The water is clear and cool and they’ve got plenty of fun built up around it (slides, a jumping platform, a lazy river) plus a River Boat Cruise or kayak rentals to explore the winding Weeki Wachee River.
The spring was named “Weeki Wachee” by the Seminole Indians (it means “little spring” or “winding river”) and the spring is so deep that the bottom has never been found. It’s thought to be the deepest underwater cave in the world. The Weeki Wachee River, which flows from the springs, runs 12 miles to the Gulf of Mexico.
Then there are the mermaids. Part synchronized swimming and part underwater ballet with a few “how did they do that” tricks thrown in with some fun music… if you ever played mermaids in the bathtub when you were a kid, this is going to knock your socks off.
The mermaids perform four shows a day, 365 days a year and they’ve been doing it since 1947.
The property with the springs was purchased by former US Navy man Newt Perry in 1946 and after he cleaned it up (cars and old refrigerators had to be hauled out of the springs!) he developed a method of breathing underwater from an air hose attached to a compressor (instead of a tank strapped to your back), built a small 18 person underwater theater and began recruiting young women whom he trained to breathe from the hoses and perform underwater tricks (like drinking a soda or eating a banana).
It became a wildly successful roadside attraction in the 1950s and really exploded when ABC (yep, the American Broadcasting Company) bought the spring and built the modern 400 person theater. And the mermaids have been a going concern ever since.
Read on for a rundown of my trip to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park plus tips for planning your visit:
My Trip to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
On my most recent trip to Florida, I planned a bit of a hodge podge agenda to hit up a few places that have long been on my travel bucket list but that I never seem to get around to.
If you’re interested in the logistics…I flew into Tampa International Airport and spent four nights at the Fenway Hotel in Dunedin (just north of Clearwater). On my “to do” list were Honeymoon Island and Caladesi Island State Parks, historic downtown Dunedin, the Tarpon Springs Sponge Docks (Florida’s “Little Greece”) and seeing the WEEKI WACHEE MERMAIDS.
On the day we went to Weeki Wachee, we left our hotel a little after 7AM and made it to the park by 8:30AM. Silly me…I thought that when they said “arrive early because it’s really crowded in the summer and sells out quickly” they meant don’t show up at noon ; )
At 8:30 (30 minutes before opening), you can’t imagine how long the line was. Having never been there before (and now knowing exactly how everything worked), we weren’t even sure if we were going to make it inside the park (let alone get to see the Mermaid Show!). I’m still not sure how many people they let in, but there was a steady stream of people getting in line behind us the whole time we waited and I think they announced on social media that they stopped letting people in around 11AM. So the park must hold a lot of people!
We probably waited in line for about 45 minutes (it seemed like they started letting people in the park before the 9AM opening) and it was the WORST part of the day. By that time in the morning, the temperature was already in the upper 80s and we were in the BEATING sun. I’m not saying all of this to complain, but to give you a heads up. This isn’t Disney and there aren’t misters and shade. You’re just standing out in the sun the whole time. We actually ended up pretty close to the front of the line considering all of the people that were behind us so it would be pretty brutal if you had to be out there for 1 hour+.
You’re going to want something cold to drink, snacks, maybe something to sit on, definitely a hat and sunscreen. Just be prepared for the heat. There were people around us who were getting sick from the heat and nobody was really prepared for it. Everybody had come ready for a day in the cool water.
We made it to the front of the line and purchased our tickets (you can’t buy tickets in advance…you have to wait in the line) and we were surprised it was only $13/adult ($8/child ages 6-12 and free for children under 5). The $13 includes admission to the springs (including Buccaneer Bay Water Park), the Mermaid Show, wildlife shows, and the 20 minute river boat ride (when it’s operating). That’s a pretty good bargain!
As soon as we were in the park we made a beeline for the Mermaid Show. It turns out the shows were first come first serve.
I had read when the shows initially reopened during COVID that the capacity was limited so you had to sign up for all the day’s shows when you first got in the park and that you might only get into one of the later shows or not at all depending on demand.
But when we went in (July 2021), they were back to operating normally.
The Mermaid Show is performed four times a day and there are two different shows: 1) Wonders of Weeki Wachee and 2) The Little Mermaid.
We lined up for the 10AM Wonders of Weeki Wachee show and were pretty quickly let into the theater when it opened at 9:30. The theater is air conditioned and it felt DIVINE to sit and wait for 30 minutes.
Just to give you a reference…we arrived at 8:30AM, made it into the park about 9:25AM, got in line for the first Mermaid Show, got into the theater at 9:30AM and the show started at 10AM. By the time the show started at 10, the theater wasn’t completely full. So if you’re getting there before the park opens (or right when it opens), you’ll probably be able to get into the first show without too much of a problem. But also…we did not rush for a spot at Buccaneer Bay and set up camp before we got in line for the show. We went straight there…THE MERMAIDS WERE THE PRIORITY.
So, onto the show itself…the 30 minutes you’re waiting in the theater for the show to start feels like part of the show. They have several TV screens set up and there’s a full pre show where they show video clips from the Mermaid Show throughout the years, behind the scenes training for how to be a mermaid, an interview from a former mermaid about the time she performed for ELVIS, and also part of a Jimmy Buffet concert. Because, of course.
AND THEN THE CURTAIN GOES UP. I won’t give away too many spoilers (Greatest Showman fans will be so psyched!), but the show lasts about 30 minutes and there’s probably half a dozen different songs/performances (maybe more?) plus the mermaids narrate a lot about the history of Weeki Wachee springs, how the mermaid show started and give a few not so subtle pitches about protecting the springs, making good environmental choices, etc.
THE SHOW WAS SO GOOD. I wasn’t really worried that I would be disappointed because I pretty much knew exactly what it was going to be, but it hits that sweet spot right in between being technically really impressive and SUPER KITSCHY.
After every show, you can meet and get your picture taken with one of the mermaids. Yes, I waited in line to meet Mermaid Ashley. Yes, I was the oldest one. And no, this is not the first time I’ve waited in line to meet a mermaid. But usually I have a Fastpass (I go to Disney a lot ; )
Surprisingly the line moved very quickly (this isn’t like Disney where each person has a 2-3 minute conversation with Ariel-everyone takes a picture and moves on pretty quickly).
After the mermaid part of the morning was over, I felt pretty satisfied. I did what I came to do and all things considered (the super long line when we got there) it went really smoothly. Honestly, I could’ve called it a day then (I came to see the Mermaid Show not to swim), but I wanted to check out the rest of the park. You know…for research ; )
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The part of the park where the shows are is kind of separate from the water park so I hadn’t really seen any of the actual springs until we made our way over there. Oh my goddess. IT WAS CROWDED. The part of the springs where you can swim (also called Buccaneer Bay) isn’t terribly large for the number of people that were there. The “waterpark” is three slides (hey they’re great slides but that’s all that’s there) plus you can pay an extra $7 to rent a tube for the “lazy river.” The lazy river involves floating through a roped off area of the springs and maybe 50 yards down the Weeki Wachee River. If I were going to make a day of it, I would probably pay the $7 to have access to that for the day. You can’t get out of your tube in the river, but the portion of the river you float through is MUCH LESS crowded than the main springs.
While there’s not a ton of stuff to do here, it very much “feels” like a little waterpark. Grassy areas, sandy areas, a few chairs and picnic tables set up, concrete walkways, snack stands, lockers, lines for slides, a packed pool, everyone running around in their swimsuits.
Most people packed like they were going to the beach (chairs, umbrellas, shade tents, towels, coolers, etc.) and people set up camp. Towels, picnic blankets, and tents covered pretty much all available space in this part of the park.
When you’re at Buccaneer Bay, you can see the backside of the theater from the Mermaid Show and the springs that the mermaids perform in so we made sure we were in the area for the second show of the day. It was really cool getting to see the mermaids enter the water from their dressing tent and get set up for the next show.
And that was the day! We didn’t stick around much past noon because there were other things in the area that I wanted to do and I 100% just came for the Mermaid Show.
Whether you’re just coming to Weeki Wachee for the Mermaid Show or you’re wanting to make a full day of it, read on for my top tips for visiting the park:
Tips for Visiting Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Get there early! I mentioned that we arrived about 30 minutes before the park was scheduled to open and it was PACKED. Also, this was on a Thursday, so on Saturdays and Sundays you definitely want to get there plenty early.
You can’t buy tickets online in advance, you just have to wait in line. Make sure you have cold drinks and a little shade because it is HOT waiting out there.
When you first get into the park, you’ll either want to go straight to Buccaneer Bay to set up camp (especially if you’re trying to get one of the like 5 lounge chairs) or to the Mermaid Show. I personally would go to the Mermaid Show first and then head to Buccaneer Bay and try to find a spot that’s a little further away from everything (the ones closest to the springs are the ones that will go first).
Take shade! It is hot, hot, hot and there’s not really any shade. You can take umbrellas and we even saw some people with full on shade tents set up.
You can’t take floats. You can’t take your own inflatables, but you can take a noodle or life jacket for children.
Sign up for the River Boat Cruise early. This wasn’t running when I visited and that was disappointing because it would’ve been a great way to see the river. It’s free, but availability is limited so you have to sign up when you get to the park and they’ll tell you when to come back for your cruise.
Kayak rentals have to be reserved in advance. They’ve recently changed how they handle kayaking on the Weeki Wachee River and now you have to book through the state park. And you have to do it in advance. You CANNOT do it once you arrive at the park. They’ll put you in your kayak at the launch site, you float down the river a few miles and then they shuttle you back to the park.
Pack a cooler or buy food once you get there. You can pack a full size cooler (no alcohol), but they also have full concessions on site.
Find out everything you need to know about Weeki Wachee Springs State Park from the official website here.
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