Category Archives: The Real Florida

The Real Mermaids of Weeki Wachee

This month we’re talking a Blog break from discussing the art of the backstory. Instead, we’re visiting one of the most magical places in offbeat Florida, Weeki Wachee, home of the live mermaids.

Where it’s at

Weeki Wachee Springs, now a Florida State Park, is located on Highway 19, about an hour north of Tampa.

Entrance to the park. Photo copyright by Jack Massa.

Weeki Wachee is one of a large number of natural springs in Florida, and one of the deepest.  According to the park website, each day more than 117 million gallons of water gush out of the underground aquifer and form the source of the Weeki Wachee river, which flows 12 miles to empty into the Gulf of Mexico.

At the park, you can take a boat ride on the river, and you can also rent kayaks nearby.

View from the river cruise. Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa
History

The real attraction, of course, is the mermaids.

In all began in 1946 with a man named Newton Perry. Perry had trained Navy frogmen during World War II, and also invented a method of breathing underwater from a free-flowing air hose. At the time, the area was pretty much a wilderness and “the spring was full of old rusted refrigerators and abandoned cars.”

Newton Perry, having just helped save the world for democracy, decided that his next mission would be to clean up the natural springs and fill them with live mermaids. (Maybe there really is something to this greatest generation stuff!)

Perry recruited local young women who were good swimmers and trained them to use his breathing device, He also taught them to do water ballet, eat bananas, and drink soda underwater. And he trained them to cope with the very strong current and constantly chilly 74 degree temperature. He installed an 18-seat theater on the shore of the springs, with view windows under the surface.

Source: https://weekiwachee.com/about-us/history/

Newton’s mermaid attraction opened in 1947. In those days, traffic on Highway 19 was scarce. According to the legend, the mermaids would run out to the roadside in their bathing suits when they heard a car coming and beckon the drivers to come in and watch the show.

During the 1950s, Weeki Wachee grew in popularity, and more attractions were added. Celebrities visited, movies were filmed, TV commericals beckoned northerners to “come on down.”

Then, in 1959, the park was bought by media giant ABC (the American Broadcasting Company). More money and more tourists poured in. A new 400-seat theater was built. The Mermaids performed elaborate shows, including Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Snow White, and Peter Pan.

Souce: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7lmxhIKd2o

I remember seeing the TV ads as a kid in the early 1960s and dreaming of live mermaids. Then I watched a 1963 episode of the series , Route 66, called The Cruelest Sea. In this episode, our traveling heroes visit Weeki Wachee and meet a girl who might be a real mermaid. Or is she? You can watch the show on YouTube and decide for yourself.

Mermaids Today

Weeki Wachee became part of the Florida State Park system in 2008, and today the mermaids are still going strong.

Sitting in the theater and watching them is really fun and really magical.

Photo copyright 2018 by Jack Massa

So if you always thought mermaids are only a legend, now you know the truth.

Note: If you are planning to visit Weeki Wachee, the mermaids will NOT be performing November 26, 2018–March 15, 2019 due to scheduled renovations at the park.

Sunken Gardens and Sand Paintings

This week, my wife and I visited the Sunken Gardens in St. Petersburg.

According to the brochure, the gardens date back to 1903, when George Turner, “a plumber and avid gardener,” purchased and drained a shallow lake, which had filled an ancient sinkhole.  They’re called sunken, because the whole place is 10 to 15 feet below street-level. What a great use for a sinkhole, I must say.

Flamingos at the Sunken Gardens

The gardens are full of streams, ponds, and waterfalls. Along with the Flamingos you can see turtles, parrots, cockatoos and fish. But the real attractions are the trees and tropical plants from all over the world.

This limestone slab was found at the bottom when they drained the lake.

The plaque claims that anyone who sits on the stone is gifted with tranquility, inner harmony, and the talent to make things grow. All new employees of Sunken Garden sit on the stone as part of their orientation. Now that is out-of-the-box talent development, folks.

Naturally, my wife and I took the opportunity to sit on the stone. What happened later might just be a coincidence.

After touring the gardens, we had lunch in downtown St. Petersburg. Walking back to our car, we passed a craft gallery. Inside, four Tibetan Monks were creating a sand painting.

Tibetan Sand Painting (through the window).

We went inside to get a better look. The painting featured a white dove at the center.

The whole experience was one of deep tranquility and inner harmony.

But like I said, it might just be a coincidence.

Old Florida: The Grounds of the Ringling Museum

One of my favorite “Old Florida” spots is the Ringling Museum of Art complex in Sarasota. You can read about how this wonderful place came to be on their official website.

On a nice Saturday in January, I had the chance to tour the gardens…

This pond and statue are near the gate house.

 

A Rainbow Eucalyptus tree showing off its beautiful colored bark.

This is a Bo Tree, under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Well, not this particular one:

This Banyan grove overlooks Sarasota Bay.

The Gardens are not without their dangers. The Banyan trees, for example, have been known to eat the statues.

…and the Bunya Bunya trees can drop 20 pound “pine cones” on your head.

There are even naked zombie statues lurking in the foliage.

But for the most part, the denizens of the garden are friendly.

…And Mabel Ringling’s Rose Garden is lovely beyond belief:

The Ringlings are buried at the edge of the property. Here, a butterfly is paying her respects.

This lion and sphinx apparently had an argument. I think they are stuck with each other, so hopefully they will make it up.

The courtyard of the art museum. The reproduction of Michelangelo’s David  is used on the logo of Sarasota County.

A Visit to Harmony Springs 2 – Downtown

In Ghosts of Bliss Bayou, Harmony Springs is a small town in Florida with an occult history dating back to the late 1800s. This idea was based on several places in Florida, which were actually founded as spiritual or Utopian communities— including Ruskin, Estero, and Cassadaga.

But the inspiration for how downtown Harmony Springs looks came from visiting another old Florida town, Micanopy. This post has some pictures taken in Micanopy, to give you the flavor.

Early in the book, Abby describes looking at the town on Google Earth.

…The historic downtown looks exactly the same, and it’s amazing—a few blocks of old shops and commercial buildings, the streets lined with huge, twisted oak trees draped in moss. And Victorian houses with wraparound porches and pointed turrets. The street-level pictures make me all warm and nostalgic. I feel this ridiculous yearning to be there.

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In a later chapter, Abby is walking downtown on her first morning in Harmony Springs.

While yesterday was overcast and humid, today is hot and dry. Sunlight filters through the oak leaves and casts wavy shadows on the ancient, broken sidewalks. The buildings and overgrown yards all look like they haven’t changed in a hundred years—not since the time of Annie Renshaw. But the modern world is also right in my face: cars and pickup trucks driving by, advertisements in the shop windows for the theme parks in Orlando…

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This, by the way, is the Herlong Mansion in Micanopy, now a bed and breakfast. Some sources claim it is haunted.

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Late in the story, Abby and her friend Molly sneak into the town’s historic cemetery at midnight.

We cruise down a winding path of hard-packed sand and crushed dead leaves, past gravestones and monuments, some well-tended, some overgrown. Black branches reach over us like twisted fingers. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I can sense all the spirits sleeping around us.

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