Fishing for funds to help mermaids
How does a city that covers 2 square miles and is home to nine residents make national headlines? With mermaids, of course. Weeki Wachee, Fla., has been home to mermaids since 1947 when an amusement park was built around the city’s natural spring and began featuring underwater performances by women dressed in mermaid costumes.
Several years ago, the Southwest Florida Water Management District (SWFWMD) aquired the land and natural spring that the park is built around and leased the land to the park’s private owners. However, as visitation to the park waned, the owners could not afford to perform routine maintenance on the facilities. When SWFWMD recently estimated necessary renovations at more than $1 million dollars, the owners, uninterested in such a hefty commitment, decided to donate ownership of Weeki Wachee Springs to the city.
While SWFWMD is considering whether to shut down the park, Weeki Wachee officials have organized a “Save Our Tails” campaign to raise money for some overdue revamping. Former mermaid and mayor of Weeki Wachee, Robyn Anderson, and Marketing Manager John Athanason explain how the campaign is progressing.
Q. How many visitors come to the park these days?
Athanason: Right now I’d say we attract about 250,000 to 275,000 visitors a year.
Q. Since renovations began in August, some buildings have been torn down, guard rails have been added, and parts of the facility have been repainted — costing $273,000 so far. What repairs still remain?
Anderson: We still have to deal with wastewater treatment — the sewer hookup for the county. That will be completed in January.
Q. What do the mermaids’ performances consist of?
Athanason: We have a dozen mermaids and two mermen. [Using air hoses], they swim 16 feet under in 72-degree [spring] water, performing choreographed shows in currents that push 175 million gallons of water through the spring each day.
Q. How have people responded to the “Save Our Tails” campaign?
Athanason: One of the main reasons we’ve been able to keep our repair costs down is the enormous support we’ve gotten from the community. A local Home Depot has donated $3,000 worth of wood for repairing one of our bridges, we have construction crews volunteering to do work, and we are receiving donations from all around the world.
Q. When will Weeki Wachee find out if the park will remain open?
Anderson: On Sept. 23, SWFWMD told us we could continue the remaining 28 years of our 30-year lease. But now they want to meet again to discuss the progress we’ve made and whether they still want to shut us down. I just think governments should be working together [on projects like this], rather than against each other.
Q. What do the mermaids mean to the city of Weeki Wachee?
Anderson: We get letters from children, usually with a picture of a mermaid and 50 cents inside. They write things like ‘Save my mermaids’ and ‘Where will they sleep?’ These kids really believe in our mermaids and it’s those kinds of letters that make you realize how much this place means to people.