Why you should care

Because sometimes we wish our childhood wishes were real.

Welcome to Weeki Wachee Springs, home to real-life mermaids since 1947. This is an underwater world, a liquid place where magic still exists, a turquoise oasis that recalls Hollywood in another era.

Weeki Wachee Springs, officially a state park since 2008, is a deep and clear swimming hole off a dusty intersection of highways in central Florida. The place prides itself on being “the world’s only city of live mermaids.” There is a genuineness to Weeki Wachee that doesn’t exist in nearby Disney World, and it is this earnestness that stars in the $13 daily shows.

Footage from 1961 captures Weeki Wachee in its heyday. That was the year that heartthrob Elvis Presley visited the park, saying he wanted to see the mermaids with his own eyes. Throughout the ’60s, tourists came from around the world to watch the mermaids perform. Others came to try to become mermaids themselves. According to Weeki Wachee, girls came from as far away as Tokyo to try out for the underwater show.

Kitschy as parts may be, there’s a grace and imagination to the footage from Weeki Wachee’s early days.

The narrator in the 1961 clip describes Florida’s largest single spring as an “underwater Grand Canyon,” a place that reveals “the fascinating beauty of the underwater world, where we explore the mystery of an ancient fable.” Though Weeki Wachee is a business like any other — over the decades, women have learned how to have picnics, play cards and throw footballs underwater in an effort to wow the crowds — it’s also one that makes a complex and mesmerizing reality out of fantasy and dreams.

The vintage footage is luminous and floating, a fairy-tale-like version of a synchronized swimming event. Inside an air-lock conch shell, mermaids wait to emerge for their performance. The audience watches, wide-eyed, from an amphitheater on the other side of the glass tank. The narrator’s voice becomes animated, alerting viewers that we are about to see “one of the most unusual scenes ever filmed”: Snack time for mermaids! “Mermaids get appetites too,” viewers are assured as smiling mermaids peel bananas and drink soda.

Kitschy as parts may be, there’s a grace and imagination to the footage from Weeki Wachee’s early days. Since 1997, the park has been drawing on this nostalgic power by bringing former mermaids back to Weeki Wachee for a series of shows, “Mermaids of Yesterday.” Imagining what it might be like to swim with a tail and to picnic, frolic and dance underwater, the narrator’s claim that we are watching “one of the wondrous beauties of nature combined with skill and daring,” doesn’t seem far-fetched. It is “beauty in the deep.”

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