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.
Thanks to some spectacular YouTube video of paddle boarders and manatees, the Weeki Wachee River, about an hour north of Tampa, is more popular than ever.
Example: Returning from our kayak run, our shuttle driver described how nine girls flew here from Ireland for a weekend because the Weeki Wachee was on their bucket list.
Happily, this famous river is so beautiful that it doesn’t disappoint. But you are unlikely to have a serene and solitary paddle on a weekend on the Weeki Wachee these days.
The Weeki Wachee has actually been famous for a long time. Since 1947, tourists have stopped to gaze into its dazzling waters at underwater ballet shows performed by pretty girls dressed as mermaids. (And they still do! See below.)
There’s no better way to see the Weeki Wachee than in a kayak and, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet the original mermaids — the endangered West Indies manatee.
To handle the crowds, in November 2018 the state started limiting the number of boats that can launch at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park to 280 individuals per day. Even if you bring your own boat, as we did, the park asks that you make a reservation to launch to help them keep under the limit.
When we arrived on a perfect November Saturday morning, the operation there was a well-staffed assembly line and there were two dozen sorority girls preparing to begin their kayak trip.
Happily, once we were on the river, it was not hard to put space between us and the others and find some quiet moments.
What makes the Weeki Wachee so special?
The beauty of the Weeki Wachee starts with the powerful spring, where a separate entrance and ticket takes people to the famous mermaid show. The spring has such a large flow of crystalline water that it replaces the water in the river every 60 minutes, making the water spectacularly clear and clean.
It also helps that the Weeki Wachee is a fairly narrow stream, at most places about as wide as two lanes on the highway, making it a more intimate experience than many springs.
The Weeki Wachee also has not been spoiled by development. For several miles you will see no man-made structures, only magnificent cypress trees lining the shore.
Much of the rivers bottom is white sand, which makes the water sparkle a beautiful aqua marine color with schools of fish as visible as in an aquarium.
Seeing manatees in the Weeki Wachee River
The visibility is especially appreciated when you are lucky enough to see visiting manatees.
We encountered manatees along the spring run on a cool December day a few years ago. (We saw none on our recent November paddle.)
On that winter visit, the woman at the kayak rentals told us about Hospital Hole, a deep, extinct spring. 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, 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.)
Swimming in the Weeki Wachee
Your best chance of seeing manatees is in the winter, but in warm weather, plenty of visitors come to swim.
The Weeki Wachee does not allow tubes or inflatable‘s of any kind. Visitors who come to swim must paddle beyond the park’s boundaries.
Indeed, as soon as we saw the park boundary sign, there was a boat pulled over in a sandy area with a family swimming and there were kayaks and people swimming at many spots along the way.
As you paddle downstream, there are even places with rope swings and a tall tree from which diving platform has been added.
It makes the atmosphere a little rowdy at times. To keep things in control, the park bans all alcoholic beverages and disposable containers and checks coolers as people launch their kayaks.
Using the Weeki Wachee shuttle and renting kayaks
The current on the Weeki Wachee is quite strong and we finished the 5.5 mile run in about three hours. If you rent your kayaks from the outfitter, they require you complete it in four hours.
Launching your boat with the outfitter is a good deal. It is $6 to launch and $5 dollars each to be shuttled back to your car at the state park. (You’ll then drive back to Rogers Park for your kayak.) If you bring your own kayak, be sure to have all of the regulation life preservers.)
About renting kayaks, canoes and SUPS: The concession is next door to the attraction, using the same parkig lot. The launch site was recently rebuilt to reduce harm to the river.
Double kayaks rent for $45. Single kayaks are $35, as are stand up paddleboards. 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: Reserve ahead, even just to launch your own boat.
Reservations: (352) 597-8484. Weekiwachee.com
Other kayak and SUP rental companies operate outside the park and so paddlers launch downstream and paddle against the current to experience the most beautiful sections of the river. (Obviously, paddling against the current is hard work and these kayakers are not likely to make it all the way into the pristine sections of the run in the state park.)
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? Absolutely, if you set your expectations correctly for a retro experience. 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
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.