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Monday, April 22, 2024

At the intersection of U.S. Highway 19 and State Road 50, about an hour northwest of Tampa, a street marked by a paint-chipped sign with a peeling picture of a mermaid runs straight into the year 1947.

Weeki Wachee Springs, "the only city of live mermaids," features women clad in bathing suits and fins trained to perform theater underwater. The 61-year-old park has fought to stay open for the last four years, but on Jan. 29, the Florida Department of Environmental Protection announced it will intervene and reopen it as a state park Nov. 1.

Florida's historical mermaid show has battled to stay afloat despite $1 million worth of needed repairs, a legal battle over land rights and a generation of children raised to expect digital effects and flashing lights in their entertainment, said marketing director John Athanason.

But it was the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that helped Weeki Wachee escape its wishy-washy future when it bought the rights to the land for $10.

"Saving this park has been overwhelming," Athanason said. "We had 60 years of history relying on us to keep its memory alive."

The roadside attraction captures a time in Florida mostly forgotten in a state now known as the home of Mickey Mouse, Athanason said.

Weeki Wachee employees struggled to avoid the fate of the many Old Florida attractions that used to dot the state roads and served as entertainment for travelers and residents.

The employees repaired as much of the park as they could. They held a "Save Our Tails" campaign to raise funds. They even hosted celebrities Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie for an episode of "The Simple Life 2."

Before "entertainment monopolies" like Walt Disney World, Florida was known for its natural beauty, said UF history professor Jack Davis, who specializes in Florida history. Davis said attractions like Weeki Wachee are an image of the state's past and should be preserved because they tell about a time that has virtually disappeared.

"It's Florida culture," he said. "I grew up in Pinellas County, close to Weeki Wachee. We used to skip school and watch the mermaid show."

Disney isn't the only culprit. Attendance has suffered from the decrease of passengers on old state roads. Highway 19 was a main road before people starting traveling on airplanes and using interstate highways, Davis said.

Robyn Anderson, Weeki Wachee Springs mayor and former mermaid, said the city wants to keep the park's memories alive.

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Athanason said when people walk through the Weeki Wachee gate, they look around and say, "This is the Florida I used to know."

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