NYTimes.com Article: Sad Days for Mermaids of the Sequined Sort
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"You're in a tail, 16 feet under water, breathing on a hose," she said. "If you think about it too much you can freak out."
do mermaids sweat underwater?
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Sad Days for Mermaids of the Sequined Sort
August 12, 2003
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
WEEKI WACHEE, Fla., Aug. 7 - Barbara Wynns has never
stopped thinking about the days she spent in an enormous
water tank here, somersaulting and backflipping in a
sequined tail fin while sucking air from a rubber hose. It
was the late 1960's, when young women from as far away as
Tokyo auditioned for the privilege of being a mermaid at
Weeki Wachee Springs, doing shows for half a million people
These days, the mermaids at this aging water park are
locals who are tired of waitressing and retail jobs, and
their celebrity does not extend much past Hernando County,
all scrub pine and suburban sprawl on Florida's west coast.
Attendance at Weeki Wachee has dwindled, and the park has a
long list of problems, not least an excess of algae in the
"It's sad," said Mrs. Wynns, 54 and dainty, who quells her
nostalgia by filling her home with hundreds of mermaid
figurines and passes out business cards with a tiny
portrait of her mermaid self, circa 1968. "To me, this
27-acre park is a universe that I love more than breathing.
But not everybody gets it anymore."
The troubles became a crisis in June, when the park's
landlord threatened to end its lease if it did not fix
dilapidated structures, add fire exits and resolve sewage
problems and a possible termite infestation.
The absentee owners, a group of investors, had put off
repairs while trying for more than a year to sell Weeki
Wachee Springs, one of the last and best-known of the
kitschy theme-park dinosaurs that ruled Florida in the
decades before Walt Disney World. The bad news for Weeki
Wachee arrived just months after another faded roadside
attraction, Cypress Gardens, closed abruptly after 67
But just when it looked as if the mermaids were going to
have to hang up their Lycra tails forever, the owners
proposed a last-ditch plan: why not donate the park to the
City of Weeki Wachee, which has nine residents and not much
to concern itself with except the park's well-being? Mayor
Robyn Anderson, a former mermaid who is the park's
no-nonsense general manager, was gung-ho.
"If anybody should have it, it's the city," said Ms.
Anderson, 29, flipping her long blond ponytail as rain
bombarded the roof of her office and the few visitors
wandering the grounds ran for cover. "The people who live
and work here actually know this place and would keep an
eye on it better than people who are never around."
The deal was completed last week; now all the city has to
do is pay a $112,500 rent installment by Aug. 30 and make a
few crucial repairs by later this week. The payment can be
made in time, Ms. Anderson said, but maybe not the repairs.
That could mean more trouble with the landlord, the
Southwest Florida Water Management District, known as
"We could move to terminate the lease if the deadlines
aren't met," said Michael Molligan, the communications
program director of Swiftmud.
The show, meanwhile, goes on, even on rainy days like this
one, when a mere 20 people await the morning's performance
in an amphitheater that smells of mildew.
It is taxing work: the mermaids have to stay in the
72-degree spring water for up to 45 minutes, holding their
breath between swigs on strategically placed air hoses. For
the last eight years they have performed <object.title
class="Movie" idsrc="nyt_ttl" value="62399">"The Little
Mermaid"</object.title> - the original Hans Christian
Andersen version, not the one that has helped make that
other, bigger theme park in Orlando so rich. They
experimented with a Pocahontas show a few years ago, but
ditched it - audiences were crestfallen at losing Ariel,
Ms. Anderson said.
The spring is a phenomenon in its own right - it pumps out
over 100 million gallons of crystal-clear water a day and
feeds it into the adjoining Weeki Wachee River, which flows
into the Gulf of Mexico. It is the springhead that forms
the mermaid tank; the rest of the spring snakes far
underground, and the bottom has never been found.
Aware that water is a precious commodity in Florida, the
city of Weeki Wachee recently sued to get possession of a
local water utility that it feared might someday tap into
the spring, another potential bad ending for the park.
In several months of training, new mermaids learn CPR, then
become certified scuba divers before trying the peculiar
art of hose-breathing. Newton Perry, a Navy diver who built
the underground theater and opened the mermaid park in
1947, invented the technique. The breathing hoses scattered
around the tank have buttons to adjust the air pressure -
if it comes out too hard, it can bruise lungs. Mermaids
bite down to stop the flow of air, and slowly exhale
through their noses while sashaying to numbers like "I've
Got the World by the Tail."
Ms. Anderson is blunt about the job's many demands.
"You're in a tail, 16 feet under water, breathing on a
hose," she said. "If you think about it too much you can
Mermaids occasionally have panic attacks, when they
suddenly feel claustrophobic or breathless and rush to the
surface. New performers face nasty ailments like ear and
sinus infections as their bodies adjust. There is also the
issue of creatures from the Weeki Wachee River invading the
"Yesterday we had a manatee in here the whole time," said
Sativa Smith, who does sound, lighting and stage direction
for each performance from a tiny control booth next to the
tank. "We get otters, gators, three kinds of turtles."
Once, a large alligator swam unseen into a hole under the
amphitheater and popped out while a mermaid was in the tank
cleaning the glass, Ms. Smith said. The mermaid quit. Now,
technicians do a "water check" before every show, and if an
alligator longer than four feet shows up, they cancel.
Manatees are welcome, however - they like to visit when the
mermaids are cleaning the tank with sponges, to get their
Mayor Anderson, who oversees mermaid auditions, said a lot
of women have shown up for tryouts with no idea of what it
takes. Many "aren't very good swimmers, believe it or not,"
she said. The perfect candidate can endure the chilly
water, lip-sync, hold her breath for up to two minutes and
swim with a smile - but no diving mask - without scrunching
up her face. She will also perform happily, without seeing
her adoring audience, for pay that starts at $6.50 an hour.
This morning, four women who fit the bill swam out from
behind a curtain of bubbles that shot from the bottom of
the tank when Ms. Smith flipped a switch in the control
room. They were a few minutes into their act when Ms. Smith
saw a flash of lightning, then another. The phone in the
control room rang; it was Ms. Anderson, who had also seen
the bolts. Ms. Smith turned on the loudspeaker in the tank,
which the audience cannot hear, and ordered the mermaids
They disappeared into "the tube," a narrow shaft to "the
hot room," a hidden, heated platform where mermaids huddle
between scenes in towels and bathrobes.
Ms. Anderson said she had already made some of the repairs
that Swiftmud requested - shoring up rotting beams at the
Mermaid Gallery restaurant, for example - but she is
holding off on others: the county fire marshal told her the
mermaid theater had enough fire exits, she said, and she
does not want to connect the park's sewage system to the
county's until the busy season ends.
The city plans to ask Swiftmud if part of the lease
payments can go to repairs. "We have to help each other out
here," Ms. Anderson said. But she and other park devotees
are also coming up with ideas for generating income. Ms.
Anderson wants to expand the kiddie pool at the Buccaneer
Bay water park that earns Weeki Wachee most of its money,
and perhaps create a second mermaid show, with new costumes
Ms. Wynns, the former mermaid, believes Weeki Wachee can go
even further: why not put on bathing-suit fashion shows in
the mermaid tank, bus tourists the 88 miles from Disney
World, even have a mermaid circulate through the park, like
Mickey, Minnie and Goofy?
Among other things, Ms. Wynns would like to see the algae -
"scrunge" to the mermaids - removed.
"We had silky white sand and emerald eelgrass, and when the
bubbles stood on it they looked like diamonds," she said
wistfully. "I believe we can make this place magic again,
with the right money."
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