Located about an hour north of Tampa at the crossroads of U.S. 19 and State Road 50, Weeki Wachee is more than just a mark on a road map. The state park is one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions, and features a spring-fed water park, wildlife show, a river boat cruise and more.
It also brings to life a certain mythological creature that lures visitors into the cool, blue spring waters.
Since 1947, Weeki Wachee Springs has enchanted visitors young and old with an underwater exhibition that brings every little girl's fantasy to reality -- the mermaid show.
Instead of cashiering or waitressing, Taylor Kane, a marine biology student at the University of South Florida, has worked as one of the state parks' 20 mermaids for the past three years. She said it's a child's dream come true.
"I saw the show for the very first time when I was six years old and I just fell in love with it,” Kane said. “I told my parents 'I'm gonna be a mermaid when I grow up.'"
The 21-year-old performs in several shows a week, including one based on Hans Christian Anderson's version of "The Little Mermaid." While she performs underwater in the spring, the audience watches from an underground 450-seat auditorium.
John Athanason, communications director for Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, said the auditorium was built in the 1950's and it's the only one like it in Florida.
“When people come see the mermaids perform, they're not in a tank, they're not in an aquarium, they're in a natural setting,” Athanason said. “In fact, our guests are the ones in a tank."
The mermaids perform a choreographed routine, swimming through the water with fabric fins and no weights to keep them in place. They stay underwater for the whole show, only pausing to take a breath of air from long rubber tubes floating around the spring.
A narrator theatrically recites the story of a mermaid falling in love with a human prince, the sea witch who cursed her and a clash between good and evil.
After the show, mermaids who didn't perform sit in a shaded alcove to visit and take pictures with guests. Young Hannah and Abby Hercheinrider from Knoxville, Tennessee, made a special stop during their vacation to visit them.
Hannah’s mom, Jenny Hercheinrider, nudged her daughter toward the mermaid.
“Is there anything you want to ask her?”
“How did you get out here?” Hannah said.
“How did I get out here?” the mermaid responded. “Well, we have a potion we drink that gives us legs. So I drank the potion when I got out of the water and walked over here. But after a while the potion wears off and I get my tail back."
Jenny Hercheinrider, said while they came to Florida to visit her parents, visiting the mermaid show was a must.
"I know growing up I always wanted to be a mermaid and I think these little girls … I know they like to put on mermaid shows when they're swimming, so I think it's great,” Hercheinrider said. “They're so excited to be here."
Athanason said guests like Hercheinrider, who visited the springs herself as a child, come back to the nearly 70-year-old attraction to re-live fond memories.
"This predates Disney, Universal,” Athanason said. “So back in the late 40's, 50's and even the 60's. When visitors came to Florida, they came to places like Weeki Wachee Springs, Silver Springs, Cypress Gardens. So that nostalgia still remains to this day.”
Back at the auditorium, mermaid Taylor Kane shares the secret of portraying the mythological sea creature.
"Twenty-four-hour lipsticks,” Kane said with a laugh. “Those are the only things that stay on in the water. That's it. That's the mermaid secret.”
The mermaids don't just stay in the park. They also they visit local aquariums to swim in the tanks alongside sharks, sea urchins and fish and participate in educational programs. That's what inspired Kane to change her college major from nursing to marine science.
"Just going to the different aquariums and stuff and interacting with the animals and talking to a lot of the biologists there, I became really interested and I love it,” Kane said.
This mermaid wants to study sharks, and dispel myths about real sea creatures.
Do you have a favorite snapshot from the past or present of a place you treasure here in the Tampa Bay area or elsewhere in Florida? From Marineland to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, we want to see how you enjoy Florida's getaways.