In September 2015, this video of manatees on the Weeki Wachee went viral and has been viewed more than 9 million times. The area’s tourist bureau credits manatees and mermaids with the growing popularity of the area. Annual hotel-tax revenues increased 79 percent in the last fiscal year.
Weeki Wachee Springs is famous, and rightly so.
Since 1947, tourists have stopped to gaze into its dazzling waters at underwater ballet shows performed by pretty girls dressed as mermaids.
But the reason the attraction began here is the amazing place itself. This spring, with its clear waters and its shores undisturbed for several miles, is magnificent to visit on its own.
There’s no better way to see it than in a kayak and, if you’re lucky, as we were, you’ll meet the original mermaids — the endangered West Indies manatee.
We were the first people in line on a chilly Saturday morning, renting kayaks from the park concession. For many miles, we were alone on the river. The current from the spring is so strong, we didn’t actually paddle. We were so taken with the beauty of the place, we were happy to just flow with the river.
We did have to steer, however, as the river is twisty and the current wants to push your kayak into branches and sandbars. In my case, it frequently succeeded.
We were loving the scenery, the birds, the many fish visible as though in an aquarium, and would have been happy indeed with this eight-mile paddle — even without manatees.
The woman at the kayak rentals told us about Hospital Hole, a very deep, extinct spring. We knew from our online research, this was the most likely place to see manatees. Hospital Hole is at the very end of the run, just 10 minutes from Rogers Park, where the outfitter picks you up and returns you to your car.
Sure enough, as we approached a wide section of the river with noticeably darker color that we thought might be Hospital Hole, we heard a snort and saw a snout.
Soon, manatees surfaced all around us. And for the next half hour, we floated there.
The manatees nudged our boats, brought their noses out of the water and looked us in the eye. They acted like friendly dogs. This is an animal that could win the Miss Congeniality Award of Endangered Species. (They would perhaps do less well in the swimsuit competition.)
We felt very lucky: It was just us and the manatees, and we were more than thrilled.
The mermaids of Weeki Wachee
We love manatees, but we also love Old Florida, including tacky tourist attractions, so we wouldn’t miss the mermaid show either.
Founded in 1947, the attraction went bust and was taken over by Florida to become a state park in 2008.
Weeki Wachee’s glory days were the 1960s. ABC purchased it in 1959 and promoted it so thoroughly on TV that it was famous around the world. (The story is girls came from as far as Japan to try out as mermaids.) Perhaps the ultimate sign of its coolness then: Elvis visited.
Today, the mermaid show is little changed and decidedly low tech. The swimmers still use air tubes to breathe. The big special effect is the curtain of bubbles that covers the window between acts.
As they did from the beginning, a mermaid demonstrates how to eat a banana under water. The great part of that act, though, is that a half dozen turtles hover nearby awaiting their three-times-a-day banana snack. The turtles, in fact, are sort of the clowns in the show. They continually need to be pushed and batted away as they crowd the mermaids and interfere with their movements.
Our timing resulted in us seeing the once-a-month performance of the mermaids of the past. These mermaids had an average age of about 55 and they say they perform because they love it. They must: Most don’t have bathing-suits bodies any longer, and I applaud their willingness to get out there in front of people at all.
“When I’m in there, I’m 19 years old,” one mermaid explained, “but on land, my body is 59.”
Admission to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is $13 for adults and $8 for children 6 to 12. Admission includes a boat trip down the river, an animal show and the mermaids. Next door is the summer-season water park, Buccaneer Bay.
Do I recommend it? You have to have the right frame of mind to enjoy the mermaid show. I am glad I went: I’m even glad I saw the chubby mermaids of yesteryear. Florida Rambler is devoted to appreciating the authentic Florida, and it doesn’t get any more real than this.
About renting kayaks and canoes: The concession is next door to the attraction. You can launch your own kayak or canoe for $6 and pay another $5 per person for a pick-up. Double kayaks rent for $37.50. Single kayaks are $32.50. Rental includes pick up service at Rogers Park, and the last pickup is 3 p.m. Our advice: Go early, before crowds gather at Hospital Hole, the place the manatees are usually seen. Also: For weekends, reserve ahead. All the kayaks were booked on our day. (Reservations: (352) 597-8484.)
Other kayak and SUP rental companies that gets high ratings located outside the park are:
Things to do near Weeki Wachee:
- There are many other excellent paddling rivers, many with manatees, in the vicinity. The best-known is the Crystal River, a half hour away. It has a reputation for more boats and a less natural setting. There are a number of outfitters who offer rentals and manatee trips. Here’s a Florida Rambler guide to seeing manatees in the Crystal River area.
- The Chassahowtzka is an unspoiled, wilder river. You can put in canoes and kayaks or rent them from the campground operated by Citrus County. You may encounter manatees here, too. Here’s our report.
- Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park is a manatee rehab center with viewing windows where you are guaranteed to see manatees. There are many other native animals on displays and programming that would especially appeal to families.
- Crystal River Archaeological State Park is a National Historic Landmark preserving ancient Indian mounds.
- Yulee Sugar Mill Ruins Historic State Park is a quick, interesting stop. The tumbling down stone walls of the sugar mill, part of a pre-Civil War plantation, are set under towering oaks. The mill’s owner is an important guy in Florida history — its first senator.
Where to stay: The area around Weeki Wachee is notably lacking in charm; you have your pick of Hampton Inns, Microtels and Holiday Inns. Within a half hour, though, is Old Homosassa, a riverfront community founded in 1835 with two adjacent moderately priced waterfront resorts: MacRae’s and Homosass1 Riverside Resort. Riverside Resort is memorable for the small island off its bar that is home to a colony of monkeys. While we strolled the waterfront, a group of manatees swam by.