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Home of the mermaids still struggling

Nostalgia and a timely flood of donations saved the tails of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids a few years ago when the vintage Florida roadside attraction nearly succumbed to age and indifference.
Weeki Wachee Mermaids
After surviving a closing scare three years ago with tails intact, the future of the live mermaids of Weeki Wachee Springs, is in question again.Chris O'meara / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Nostalgia and a timely flood of donations saved the tails of the Weeki Wachee Springs mermaids a few years ago when the vintage Florida roadside attraction nearly succumbed to age and indifference.

The mermaids are still swimming for appreciative audiences in this tiny town an hour north of Tampa, but the waters are far from calm.

The newly spruced up theme park remains embroiled in a distasteful dispute over its lease with a state agency that Weeki Wachee Springs' owners say could spell the end for one of the remaining tourist gems of old Florida, celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

But the agency, the Southwest Florida Water Management District, which owns the spring and surrounding land and leases it to the attraction, says Weeki Wachee Springs owners are the ones being obstinate and denies that it wants the place shut down.

Lawsuits have flown back and forth. Mediation hasn't worked, so now it's left to a judge to sort out at a trial scheduled for August.

The owners of the attraction - actually the nine or so residents of the 1-square-mile city of Weeki Wachee - say they're digging in for another go-round with the state agency that nearly did away with the mermaids in 2003.

That time, the international media took note of the park's financial plight, money poured in from around the world and big-box retailers donated construction materials. People then started coming back to see the animal shows, swim in Buccaneer Bay and, of course, marvel at the comely young women in sequined mermaid tails performing choreographed routines in the shimmering spring.

But the park's owners and the water management agency have continued to butt heads over issues ranging from the wording and amount of the lease to the unauthorized dredging of the spring and whether the little city is even allowed by law to own the attraction.

Weeki Wachee Springs owners say a ruling against them on any one of several issues would allow the water board to revoke the lease. They believe the intent is to close the park and turn the spring and surrounding land into a state park, an idea that has been floated before by agency board members.

Robyn Anderson, a former Weeki Wachee mermaid who now performs the dual role of town mayor and park general manager, says the continuing legal challenges amount to sabotage.

"It's this big agency beating up on the little guy," she says. "And we're not going to back down."

But water management agency spokesman Michael Molligan says it has been Anderson and her attorney who have blocked efforts to resolve the issues and suggested they're using the continuing dispute to generate another wave of publicity for the attraction.

Molligan said the conflict has been just as frustrating for the agency. Its goal is to make sure the environmentally fragile spring remains healthy and that the attraction is being run properly.

"We recognize the historic nature of this park," he said. "It's not our goal to shut down Weeki Wachee. Our prime goal is to make sure it's operating safely."

Before the Orlando theme-park empire was even a glimmer in Walt Disney's eye, the live mermaids made Weeki Wachee Springs one of Florida's top tourist stops.

Situated along U.S. 19 - a major tourist trail in the days before Interstate 75 - Weeki Wachee Springs debuted its underwater show in 1947, featuring young women in fish tails breathing compressed air through hoses as they somersaulted and back-flipped through choreographed routines.

In the park's heyday, as many as 1 million visitors a year watched from windows in the underwater theater and celebrities such as Elvis Presley, Don Knotts and Danny Thomas visited to canoodle with the world-famous mermaids.

Then Walt Disney World opened an hour away in Orlando in 1971. The expanding theme park mecca was soon siphoning off would-be Weeki Wachee visitors, and the place slipped into disrepair and relative obscurity through the 1980s and '90s.

The state bought the land and spring from the city of St. Petersburg in 2001. Soon afterward, the agency threatened to end the attraction's lease if the group of investors that owned it didn't fix a litany of problems that included dilapidated buildings and an outdated sewer system.

Unable to find a buyer, the owners donated the park to the city of Weeki Wachee for tax credit. Anderson, who worked on the management team under the previous owners, got to work with her staff, launching a "Save Our Tails" media blitz and fundraising campaign.

The improvements got done. Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie visited for an episode of their reality TV series, an English band called Supergrass filmed a music video at the park, and an "American Idol" finalist sang there, all adding to Weeki Wachee's international exposure. Attendance was up 14 percent last year.

One weekday last month, the 400-seat underwater theater was three-quarters full for an afternoon show. Among the visitors were sisters Jessica and Emily Kormer, who sat wide-eyed watching the mermaids tumble through the water on the other side of the glass. Jessica, 8, and Emily, 3, were visiting from Rochester, N.Y., with their parents, both of whom had been to Weeki Wachee as children.

"I didn't know it was still in existence," said their mother, Rachel Kormer. "I had to get online to see. They wanted to see the mermaids. They love mermaids."

The Kormers said they hope the mermaids will still be swimming after the courtroom showdown this summer. They're not the only ones.

"We're at the point of no return," said John Athanason, the park's marketing man who helped orchestrate the rescue campaign in '03. "If something happens, we'll chain ourselves to the gate and they'll have to come move us by force."