WEEKI WACHEE — At the height of his pre-sequined fame, Elvis Presley visited the mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll” wasn’t alone.
In the park’s heyday, up to 500,000 people a year packed into its famous underwater theater to watch Weeki Wachee’s mermaids play football, enjoy picnics and perform shows.
In the late 1950s, the popular U.S. 19 tourist attraction was purchased by the American Broadcasting Co., which built the theater 16 feet below the surface of the Weeki Wachee River’s clear springs.
Within years, young women from as far as Japan were traveling to Weeki Wachee in hopes of becoming a mermaid.
This summer, Florida Division of Recreation and Parks officials look to return part of the attraction to its vintage aesthetics by having the wooden shingles atop the underwater theater’s roof removed, exposing its original giant seashell-style top. The work will cost about $120,000.
“It’s one of Florida’s oldest roadside attractions, and everybody loves the nostalgia,” said John Athanason, marketing and public relations manager at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, of the original roof.
“It’s old Florida. As a native Floridian, I always wondered why they covered it up to begin with because it’s such an iconic (aspect of) this park.”
Wooden shingles were placed over the original roof in 1974 to match the park’s South Pacific theme, the recreation and parks department stated in a news release.
The renovation work will focus on removing the wooden shingles and adding a “fluid applied membrane” to barrel vaults that form the seashell shape.
“The goal is to once again expose the glowing white seashell and allow it to return to its right position as a beacon for the park’s mermaids and once again play a role in Florida’s living history,” the news release stated.
Athanason, the marketing manager, said mermaids currently perform four shows a day during summer months and about three daily shows after Labor Day. The park has about 20 mermaids.
The roof work will not affect the park’s shows, Athanason said.