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Weeki Wachee Springs: Kayaking, manatees and mermaids

The word is out. Thanks to some spectacular YouTube video of paddle boarders and manatees, Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, about an hour north of Tampa, is more popular than ever.

Example: Returning from kayaking Weeki Wachee springs, our shuttle driver described how nine girls flew here from Ireland for a weekend because Weeki Wachee Springs State Park was on their bucket list.

In September 2015, this video of manatees at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park 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. 

Despite the crowds, this famous river is still stunning. There is growing concern, however, that Weeki Wachee Springs is being over-loved and over-used and the experience at the park is different from what people may remember from years past.

Weeki Wachee Springs 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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking Weeki Wachee Springs State Park: The flow of crystalline water is so large that it replaces the water in the river every 60 minutes, making the water spectacularly clear and clean. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

What makes kayaking Weeki Wachee Springs State Park so special?

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.

The beauty of the Weeki Wachee starts with the powerful spring, which 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 upper section of 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.

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. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Kayaking Weeki Wachee Springs: It is a narrow stream, at most places about as wide as two lanes on the highway, making it a more intimate experience than many springs. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)

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.

At Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, there is a separate admission for the part of the park that used to be a roadside attraction, including the mermaid show.

Weeki Wachee kayaking: Beautiful but river is under stress

There’s no better way to see Weeki Wachee Springs than in a kayak and, if you’re lucky, you’ll meet the original mermaids — the endangered West Indies manatee.

But the Weeki Wachee is being loved to death. Beginning in summer 2023, an innovative clean-up effort has begun that will continue for a year. It uses individual divers in wet suits vacuuming up the silt and muck from the bottom with an underwater vacuum cleaner. This system does not cloud the waterway.

The fame and popularity of the river has also resulted in some big changes to the traditional Weeki Wachee Springs kayak trip. If you kayaked the Weeki Wachee a few years ago, as I did, several things are different now.

In July 2023, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission created a Springs Protection Zone along a 5.61-mile stretch of the river from the springhead in Weeki Wachee State Park to the Rogers Park Boat Ramp, where, beaching, mooring, anchoring and grounding vessels is forbidden to prevent shoreline erosion. 

A few years early, to handle the crowds, 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, the park requires that you make a reservation to launch to keep under the limit.

Then, to further reduce stress on the river, the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park kayak route was greatly shortened so that paddlers only travel 2.8 miles before being shuttled back to the start. In the past, kayakers paddled 5.6 miles to Rogers Park, where the shuttle picked them up.

An alternative to kayaking from Weeki Wachee Springs State Park is to kayak from Rogers Park, where you can launch your own boat. At this end of the river, you can also rent from the Kayak Shack.

From this location, you must paddle upstream to reach the “blue” section of the river — where the bottom is sandy and the clear water glistens a striking aquamarine color.

The Weeki Wachee is a big spring, however, so the current is pretty strong, and it is about 1.5 miles upstream to the most beautiful part. Experienced and strong kayakers will be fine; new kayakers might find the going difficult.

Your best bet, a staff member at the Kayak Shack advises, is to check on the tides and time your visit a few hours before high tide. The tidal influence on Weeki Wachee River extends a few miles upstream and with the tide on your side, it is easier to head upstream.

Seeing manatees when kayaking Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

The clarity of the Weeki Wachee 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.

Manatee at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida
Manatee with a large scar on its back at Weeki Wachee Spring “Hospital Hole.” (Photo: David Blasco)

On that visit, we knew to watch for a place called Hospital Hole, a deep, extinct spring, about a half mile upstream from Rogers Park.

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.)

You can see manatees at any point along the Weeki Wachee; sometimes there are manatees right at the springhead.

Note: Kayakers who start at the Weeki Wachee Springs State Park no longer paddle as far as Hospital Hole, though manatees may be present at other locations in the river.

Our advice for kayaking Weeki Wachee Springs State Park:

  • Go early when you are likely to have a less crowded experience.
  • If you are a kayaker and not a swimmer, go from October to April, when the river is less busy.
  • Reserve ahead, even just to launch your own boat.
  • Pack carefully: The park bans all alcoholic beverages and disposable containers and checks coolers as people launch their kayaks.
  • Weeki Wachee kayaking launch: The launch site is reached via the parking lot and you launch on the spring run below the actual springhead, which you cannot access. You do not pay park admission if you are only kayaking.

Reservations: (352) 597-8484.

The Little Mermaid courtesy Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
The Little Mermaid at Weeki Wachee.

Swimming in Weeki Wachee Springs

In warm weather, visitors have always come to swim. The Weeki Wachee Spring Protection Zone no longer allows visitors to get out of their kayaks or canoes to swim along the stream. But swimming is allowed at a three-acre beach at Rogers Park and admission to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park includes admission to Buccaneer Bay, which has a beach and two water slides, which use the sparkling water from the spring.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park mermaids

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.

Mermaid shows are offered at 11 a.m., 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m. Seating is first-come, first-served and doors open 30 minutes before the program. Shows may be canceled due to weather and no refunds are issued. The Wilderness River Cruise runs daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. on a first-come, first-served basis.

Today, the Weeki Wachee 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.

Mermaid show at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park in Florida
Retired mermaids perform at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

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.”

Buccaneer Bay Waterpark at Weeki Wachee

Located inside Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, Buccaneer Bay features two water slides: the Cannonball and Pirate’s Revenge flumes.

There is also a sandy white beach where you can swim and snorkel in the in the crystal-clear spring waters.

The park has a lazy river around the swimming area; inner tubes are available for rent.

There is also water play area for children six years and younger and certified lifeguards on duty throughout the waterpark.

Buccaneer Bay is opened during the summer season only, daily from the end of May to mid-August and then weekends only from mid-August to the end of September.

For 2023, the schedule was:

  • March 11-19: All water attractions are open
  • March 20 – May 26: The swimming area is open daily. Water slides, lazy river and kiddie pool open Saturdays and Sundays
  • Starting May 27: All water attractions are open daily for the summer.
  • Mid-August to the end of September: Water slides, lazy river and kiddie pool open Saturdays and Sundays

Admission to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park

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 and admission to the Buccaneer Bay water park next door in the summer.

If you just want to kayak, you do not have to pay admission. There is a separate area to the left to the main entrance for kayaking.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
6131 Commercial Way
Weeki Wachee FL 34606

Map of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
Map of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park and Weeki Wachee River.

Weeki Wachee Springs State Park FAQ

What does Weeki Wachee mean? It comes from the Seminole Indians and means “little spring” or “winding river.” 

How do the mermaids breathe underwater? There are a series of underwater tubes with compressed oxygen through which they breathe. The system and attraction was created in 1947 by Newt Perry, a local stunt swimmer and swim coach who became a consultant for Hollywood movies that involved on-location water scenes in Florida.

How long do the mermaids stay underwater? The show is 30 minutes long and mermaids do not surface during the show. To be a mermaid, you must be scuba-certified, CPR-certified and lifeguard-certified. Mermaids don’t “get their tail” until, during training, you have learned to keep your legs together.

How was Weeki Wachee saved? Once a famous roadside attraction, Weeki Wachee lost audience as visitors flocked to more sophisticated spots like Disney World, which opened in 1971. As the attraction came close to closing, a “Save Our Tails” campaign convinced the state to make it a state park and preserve it in 2008.

Things to do near Weeki Wachee Springs State Park:

  • 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.
  • Linda Pedersen Park, 6400 Shoal Line Blvd, Spring Hill, FL 34607. This park is near several other manatee magnets, including the Chassahowitzka River and Crystal River. Inside this park, Jenkins Creek Spring provides the warm water to attract manatees. There is a wooden observation tower with excellent views out over the gulf and a bridge over the water. It’s a popular place to view manatees in winter from shore. It’s free and you can launch a kayak from here too.
Old Florida scene in Homosassa. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Old Florida scene in Homosassa. (Photo: Bonnie Gross)
Homosassa Riverside Resort's monkey island.
Homosassa Riverside Resort’s monkey island.

Where to stay: The area immediately 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 Florida Cracker Riverside Resort. (The hotel is now part of the successful Florida Cracker Restaurant group, which started by serving outstanding traditional foods in a small restaurant in Brooksville.)

The Florida Cracker Riverside Resort is memorable for the small island off its bar that is home to a colony of monkeys.  While we strolled the waterfront, watching the monkeys, a group of manatees swam by.

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Friday 9th of April 2021

Sadly, you have to make a reservation 2 weeks in advance to launch your own kayak from the state park :/

Bonnie Gross

Friday 9th of April 2021

Thanks for this info, Amy.


Saturday 28th of November 2020

It is better to kayak with the Kayak Shack off of Shoaline Road. Rent your Kayak for 35 and get it until 5 p m. Paddle up the river and back down, so you can go 12 miles not deal with the stupid rules or get your trip cut in half for the same price. AND the state park doesn't own the rental place, they are very sneaky, using the "state park" name.

Kristi Deming

Thursday 12th of November 2020

My family and I visited Weeki Watchee last weekend to kayak. So many things have changed. The park only allows you to kayak about 2.5 miles in. Same price and you miss out on the best parts of the river. So sad.

Bonnie Gross

Friday 13th of November 2020

Thank you for the comment. It's true there have been many changes as park management struggles to protect the river given the crowds it attracts.

Bonnie Gross

Monday 4th of December 2017

Very little! I kayaked this river after Irma and one could see an occasional toppled tree, but the run is clear and beautiful.

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