Weeki Wachee and Spongeorama - Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry

Best. State. Ever.: A Florida Man Defends His Homeland - Dave Barry (2016)

Weeki Wachee and Spongeorama

For thousands of years, two legendary mythical creatures have drawn men to the sea:

1. Mermaids.

2. Sponges.

I have heard the seductive siren song of these creatures, which is all the more amazing when you consider that sponges do not have mouths. And so it is that on a bright fall Florida day I find myself driving north from the Tampa Airport, across the Pithlachascotee River, to the place where Route 50 meets Route 19. This is the town of Weeki Wachee, which has a population of four,17 and which is known as The City of Mermaids. It is the home of Weeki Wachee Springs, which, of all the classic Florida roadside tourist attractions, is one of the Florida-est.

It began as the dream of a man named Newton “Newt” Perry, who was raised in nearby Ocala. Perry was a gifted swimmer—sometimes called The Human Fish—who could hold his breath for as long as eight minutes. He put on swimming exhibitions in which he performed tricks such as eating bananas underwater, which is a handy skill because, as you can imagine, after several minutes of being submerged, a person gets hungry. Perry was a consultant on movies involving underwater scenes, including Creature from the Black Lagoon, the horror classic about a scientific expedition to the Amazon that is terrorized by a man wearing an uncomfortable rubber suit.

In the mid-forties, Perry had the idea of building an underwater theater at Weeki Wachee, which is the deepest natural spring in the United States, producing 117 million gallons of fresh water every single day. It’s almost impossible to imagine that much water gushing up out of the earth unless you have lived in a house I once owned in Pennsylvania, which had a basement that was highly susceptible to flooding. It was a nightmare. I could hear whales calling to each other down there. One difference between Newt Perry and me, aside from our relative breath-holding abilities, is that when I looked at my basement, I never thought: “Hey, that could be a tourist attraction!”

But Newt had that kind of vision, and in 1947 he opened Weeki Wachee, with its underwater theater, to the public. The audience sat on rows of benches facing a wide glass wall, on the other side of which attractive young women in bathing suits performed aquatic ballet and did tricks, including eating and drinking underwater. Instead of surfacing to breathe or wearing scuba tanks, the performers inhaled compressed air from rubber hoses, which they’d drop onto an underwater platform and pick up as needed.

According to Weeki Wachee lore, in the early days, when the performers heard a car coming, they’d run out to Route 19 in their swimsuits and try to lure the driver into the parking lot; if they got a customer—even just one—they’d put on a show. By the 1950s, more tourists were coming, and the performers—now called mermaids—were wearing tails.

Weeki Wachee hit the big time in 1959, when the American Broadcasting Company bought the spring, enlarged the theater, upgraded the facilities and began using Weeki Wachee as a filming location. It was now a major tourist attraction and it drew big-name entertainers such as Elvis, Don Knotts and Arthur Godfrey. (It seems as if every account of Weeki Wachee’s glory days mentions this trio of celebrities.) Large crowds came throughout the sixties; Weeki Wachee became known around the world; the mermaids were famous. Times were good.

And then, in the seventies (cue scary music—specifically, “It’s a Small World”), Disney came to Florida. Suddenly the Weeki Wachee mermaids, with their tails and their air hoses and their display of underwater eating, were competing with a space roller coaster, a pirate ride, a fairy-tale castle, a haunted mansion, fireworks, beloved characters walking around wearing giant heads, turkey legs and much more (including mermaids).

Florida tourism started to change. Visitors no longer meandered along the state’s byways, stopping for a few hours at whatever roadside attraction caught their eye, then moving on to the next one. Now they went straight to the Magic Kingdom, which sucked them into its powerful gravitational Fun Vortex and held them there, like a black hole with Jiminy Cricket.

Over the next few decades, attendance at Weeki Wachee declined. The park changed hands several times and fell into disrepair. By 2001, it was in danger of going out of business. It was saved by the fund-raising efforts of current and former mermaids, who got local businesses to help out. Then in 2008 the state of Florida, seeking to save an iconic part of the state’s tourism culture, stepped in and made Weeki Wachee Springs an official state park. This meant that Weeki Wachee’s future was secure. It also meant that the mermaids became state employees, which I think is wonderful. As a Florida resident, I would much rather see my tax money spent on mermaids than on, for example, the lieutenant governor.

Today Weeki Wachee is alive and well, although on the day I arrive—a Tuesday in October, not a prime time for tourism—the parking lot is mostly empty. I pay my $13 admission, go inside and look around.

Let’s get this out of the way: If you are looking for high-octane excitement, or even medium-octane excitement, Weeki Wachee is not for you. It is low-key, bordering on sleepy. It’s like the fifties never ended in there. Walking around, I almost expect to see a dad in plaid Bermudas using his Kodak Brownie to take snapshots of his wife, Betty, and their two kids, Billy and Sally, before they head home in their ’57 Chevy Bel Air to watch Elvis, Don Knotts and Arthur Godfrey on their Philco black-and-white TV.

In fact, most of the people I see at Weeki Wachee are retired couples, plus a few families with preschool children, strolling around and checking out the park. Aside from the underwater theater, there’s a water park with slides, animal exhibits, a gift shop with many mermaid-themed items, a restaurant, canoe and kayak rentals, playgrounds, etc. Weeki Wachee also has the one essential element you look for in a true classic Florida tourist attraction: a Mold-A-Matic.

A Mold-A-Matic is a machine traditionally found at older Florida tourist attractions. You feed in some money—these days, usually $2—and, thanks to the miracle of plastic injection molding, nothing happens, because traditionally the Mold-A-Matic—the one at Weeki Wachee, for example—is out of order. On those occasions when it does work, the Mold-A-Matic produces, after some chugging and hissing, a fresh-baked, still-warm little plastic souvenir related to whatever attraction you are visiting. The Weeki Wachee machine, theoretically, cranks out a mermaid.

Speaking of needing maintenance: Weeki Wachee has let itself go a little. Some of the buildings could use fresh paint and the grass needs cutting. If this were a Disney property, the head groundskeeper would be beheaded as an example to the staff. On the other hand, if this were a Disney property, they’d charge you a hell of a lot more than $13 to get in. For $13, you could maybe buy a Disney pretzel.

I pass the water park, Buccaneer Bay, and amble down to the Wilderness River Cruise. This is a pontoon-boat ride on the Weeki Wachee River, which is formed by the water gushing out of the spring and flows seven miles to the Gulf of Mexico. As I board the boat with maybe two dozen other tourists, the guide makes a few well-rehearsed jokes about feeding us to the alligators and we chuckle, because that is our role. Then we shove off for our Wilderness Cruise on the mighty Weeki Wachee.

To continue the Disney comparison: The comparable ride in the Magic Kingdom is the Jungle Cruise, where your guide emits a steady stream of glib comical patter (“I’d like to take a moment to point out some of the plants to you. There’s one, there’s one …”) and your boat encounters many animated wildlife units, including a python, gorillas, lions, a rhinoceros and a hippo that “charges” your boat.

The Weeki Wachee Wilderness Cruise is considerably less dramatic. We don’t encounter any alligators, although we do see some mullet, and, in their defense, they are actual, biological, non-animatronic mullet. The guide tells us that he has seen a young manatee hanging around. A few minutes later, we spot him, or possibly her, and we take numerous pictures.

The manatee is a largish animal, but, unlike the Jungle Cruise hippo, it does not attack our boat. Mainly what manatees do, in my experience,18 is eat and fart. They are the adolescent boys of the marine world. Still, this manatee, like the mullet, is real, and it is definitely the highlight of the Wilderness Cruise. We turn around and head back to the dock, having spent a total of twenty minutes in the wilderness, completely isolated from any trace of civilization except for when we passed the canoe-and-kayak rental concession.

From the Wilderness Cruise, I head to the main attraction of Weeki Wachee, the Newton Perry Underwater Mermaid Theatre.

There I meet up with John Athanson, a native Floridian who’s the public relations manager for the park. When I find him he’s talking with some movie people, who are on location filming part of a film that will be called City of Mermaids. Athanson tells me that the day before, for a different film shoot, the Travelocity Gnome was at the park, in person; other celebrities who have visited during Athanson’s tenure include Paris Hilton and Larry the Cable Guy. Perhaps these are not names of the same caliber as Elvis, Don Knotts and, of course, Arthur Godfrey, but the point is that Weeki Wachee still has some star power.

While we’re talking, an attractive blond woman approaches Athanson to discuss some mermaid-show business. This is Nikki Chickonski, who has been a mermaid for eleven years, having started as an eighteen-year-old high school student. She’s joined by another woman connected with the show, who is carrying some sequined tops, and the two of them have a brief discussion about the mermaids’ costumes. Chickonski informs me that they can choose from a variety of tails.

“Before the show,” she says, “we’ll say, Hey, what tails are we wearing?” Then they choose their tops, as certain tops go better with certain tails. “Also some tops work better on some mermaids than others,” she says. “Some girls are bustier than others.”

Mermaid Nikki Chickonski, holding a mermaid top.

Chickonski says it takes a lot of training to become a Weeki Wachee mermaid. The water is chilly—always 74.2 degrees—and the mermaids, performing fifteen to twenty feet below the surface, have to contend with the five-mile-an-hour current gushing up from the spring opening sixty-five feet below.

“We have a long training process,” she says. “At first, you don’t wear a tail. You train on the air hose with your legs together.” The next step is a training tail: “It’s different from a show tail. The training tail has a zipper, so if you need to, you can escape.”

After Chickonski leaves, Athanson walks me down into the theater, which can seat 450 people, although at the moment it’s almost empty. It’s cool down there, out of the daytime glare; the sunlight filtering through the springwater fills the room with a bluish glow.

On the other side of the glass, some trainee mermaids are practicing, without tails, on the air hoses. Also some fish are swimming around, acting like it is no big deal to be underwater. It’s a peaceful scene, and Athanson, a veteran p.r. guy, takes the opportunity to sing the praises of the spring, and take a little shot at Disney.

“This is an iconic show,” he says. “You have this beautiful, peaceful spring. Then you throw in a pretty girl in a mermaid tail. It’s magic. We don’t need animatronics.”

Around 2:30 p.m., people start drifting into the theater for the 3 o’clock mermaid show. The glass wall is now covered by a blue curtain; calypso music is playing. By 3, there are about sixty people in the audience. To warm us up for the show, TV monitors on the side walls display a Jimmy Buffett stadium concert performance of the song “Fins” featuring a quartet of seated Weeki Wachee mermaids being wheeled onto the stage. Then the blue curtain rises and, finally, we see three of them swimming gracefully into view: Elvis, Don Knotts and Arthur Godfrey.

No, seriously, what you see is three women in mermaid tops and tails. They swim around a bit, then pick up their air hoses and begin a synchronized routine, twirling, flipping, rising, falling, taking breaths from their hoses, emitting clouds of bubbles and always—always—smiling.

They lip-sync to a mermaid song (“We’re not like other women / Fighting traffic on the shore …”). Then, responding to prompts from a recorded narrator, one of them drinks a beverage from a bottle while another one eats an apple. We applaud these feats (we’ve been told the performers can hear us). Several times the mermaids perform their signature move, grabbing each other’s tails and swimming in a vertical circle.

Each time, this maneuver gets a big hand. But the audience saves its most enthusiastic response for the last part of the act, “A Tribute to Our Country.” We hear Lee Greenwood singing “Proud to Be an American” as two women—without tails—swim into view wearing red-white-and-blue star-spangled swimsuits. They do some patriotic synchronized swimming maneuvers, and then, for the grand finale, a mermaid (with tail) swims up from the depths of the spring holding an American flag.

This gets a big hand, including from me. Call me a proud American, if you want, but I truly believe that no other nation on Earth possesses the capability to put on a more powerful display of underwater mermaid patriotism.

After the show, some audience members press close to the glass wall to take photos of and selfies with one of the mermaids.

Other audience members go to the theater lobby to pose with a mermaid sitting on a chair.

I walk back out into the sunlight, trying to decide what I think about Weeki Wachee. I conclude that, by modern theme-park standards, it is dated, hokey and unsophisticated. In other words, it’s great. I mean that sincerely. Weeki Wachee is a time machine that takes you back to a different era. I’m not saying it was in all ways a better era. But it was definitely a calmer one. And for just thirteen bucks, you can go back there and mellow out for a day. Using the standard Florida Tourist Attraction Rating System, by which an attraction is rated on a scale of 1 to 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics, I would give Weeki Wachee a solid 3½ out-of-order Mold-A-Matics.

I leave Weeki Wachee, returning to the twenty-first century, and set out southbound on Route 19. If you had to select one stretch of road to validate every negative stereotype about Florida culture, you would be hard put to do better than Route 19, which is a cavalcade of strip bars, porn stores, pawn shops, trailer parks and billboards for personal-injury lawyers. As a bonus, this stretch of Route 19 was once declared by Dateline NBC to be the most dangerous road in America because of the high number of pedestrian deaths.

But there is a bright spot on Route 19. In Spring Hill, a few miles south of Weeki Wachee on the east side of the highway, there is a twenty-two-foot-tall, fifty-eight-foot-long bright pink concrete dinosaur.

Why? you might ask. According to the Hernando County Historical Society, the dinosaur was created in 1962 by August Herwede, “who was a local artist that became famous back in the 1950’s and early 1960’s for constructing concrete dinosaur attractions along various highways in West Florida.” Originally, the dinosaur was intended to attract people to a wildlife museum, but that closed because of poor attendance. It was replaced, according to the Historical Society, by a taxidermy shop that “featured over 1,200 stuffed animals which featured a prominent deformity of one kind or another.” Today the dinosaur stands in front of a candy store called Fudge Factory USA.

I stop to take a picture, but do not linger, because I have to get to the sponges.19 Still, I find the dinosaur to be visually impressive, plus it has been declared a Historical Site, plus it is convenient to fudge. So I award it a Florida Tourist Attraction rating of 1½ out-of-order Mold-A-Matics.

I resume my southbound journey on the deadly Route 19, somehow managing not to hit a single pedestrian before I reach my destination, Tarpon Springs. This is the U.S. Sponge Capital, the heart of our vital domestic natural-sponge industry. This industry is dominated by Greek-Americans, whose ancestors came here in the early twentieth century to harvest sponges in the Gulf of Mexico. Today, Tarpon Springs has the highest percentage of Greek-American residents of any American city. It’s a quaint and scenic little town on the water, dotted with authentic Greek restaurants and stores featuring sponges and sponge-related merchandise out the wazoo.

My destination is the granddaddy of all sponge-related attractions: Spongeorama.

Spongeorama is a combination store and museum devoted to sponges. I go into the museum part first, because—like too many Americans—I have never really given much thought to sponges. I, frankly, don’t even know what a sponge is. If I had to guess, I would say it’s a kind of plant.

The sponge museum is in the back of the store and it consists of a group of dusty, yellowing exhibits dating back to, I would estimate, roughly the time of Plato. Nevertheless, they are informative, and I learn many sponge facts.

To begin with, sponges are not plants. They are multi-celled animals, although they have no mouths, internal organs, brains or nervous systems. They cannot move, but they can reproduce, eat, grow and obtain Florida driver's licenses.

I’m kidding about that last one, sort of.

There are a number of ways to harvest sponges, including a method called harpooning, which conjures up an image of a brave sponge hunter, out on the sea, doing battle with his nemesis, Moby-Sponge. In fact, harpooning involves using a pole to hook the sponge off the seabed and bring it into the boat. A riskier method is to go down to the seabed personally, wearing a diving suit and helmet attached to an air hose. The Spongeorama museum, quoting Newsweek, says that this method of sponge hunting is probably the country’s “most dangerous occupation.”20 Illustrating this point is a gruesome diorama of a diver lying on a deck, either unconscious or dead, with blood coming out of his nose.

There are many more exhibits, and many more sponge facts. For example, there is a sponge mentioned in the Bible. Really. It’s the part where Jesus dies.21

After touring the museum, I go back into the store area, where I encounter a forceful Greek woman Spongeorama employee who tells me I should watch the movie. Far be it from me to generalize about Greek women, but in my experience they do not tend to be shrinking violets. If a Greek woman tells you to do something, you do it.

The forceful Greek woman directs me and some other tourists into a side room with benches and a movie screen. She informs us that the movie is “very historical,” then turns on the projector and leaves.

The movie appears to be a few decades old, done in the style of the documentaries you watched in middle school when you had a substitute teacher, with titles like The Story of Baking Soda. The soundtrack quavers, and the colors are murky, tending toward purple and red, as if the scenes were filmed through a pitcher of Kool-Aid.

The protagonist is a guy—I will call him Spongeorama Man—who presents a detailed explanation of how sponges are processed for sale to the consumer. I would strongly recommend this film for anybody thinking of going into sponge-processing as a career, because Spongeorama Man is extremely thorough, to the point where I am in danger of nodding off. But I perk up when he starts talking about the various types of sponges for sale at Spongeorama, because I know that when I leave this room, I am going to have no choice but to purchase a sponge from the forceful Greek woman, and I need to know which kind I should get.

This turns out to be a more complicated decision than you might think. At first I lean toward getting a yellow sponge, which Spongeorama Man states is “an excellent all-purpose sponge.” I reject the finger sponge, which is mainly for florists and aquariums, although Spongeorama Man says “the fish enjoy it.” I also pass on the flowerpot sponge,22 which you grow plants in.

The sponge I settle on is the wool sponge. “This is the Cadillac of sponges,” states Spongeorama Man. “If you’re looking for a top-grade sponge, this is it.” At this point, I am sold; I’m going to splurge on a wool sponge as a gift for my wife. The ladies love a romantic gesture.

I’m all set to leave the theater and buy a wool sponge when Spongeorama Man, instead of ending the movie, introduces another movie, which is longer, older and murkier than the first one. In terms of production values, it makes the first film look like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s a documentary, with a dramatic narrator, about Greek men heading out on ships and smoking cigarettes and harvesting sponges and just generally being very Greek. In one of the more dramatic moments, we see a man haul a freshly caught sponge into the boat, and we finally get a chance to see a live, pre-processing sponge close up. It looks—and I say this as a person who has nothing but the deepest respect for the sponge as an organism—like a turd.

We also see scenes of a diver in a helmet and canvas suit collecting sponges on the seafloor while dramatic music plays in the background. If, at that moment, a Weeki Wachee mermaid swam past the diver holding an American flag, it would be the greatest documentary ever made. Unfortunately, that does not happen. Instead, the film goes into a stirring, surreal finale in which the announcer dramatically lists all the wonderful uses of sponges while, in the background, a dramatic chorus—it might even be Greek—chants, over and over, “Real sponges! Natural sponges!”

By the time the movie ends, I am fired up and ready to make my sponge purchase. I go back into the store, where I am confronted by a bewildering array of sponges, loofas23 and other products.

The forceful Greek woman approaches me. I tell her I want to buy my wife a wool sponge, but I don’t know which one. Without hesitating, she picks up a sponge and hands it to me. “Your wife wants this one,” she says, forcefully. She can tell just by looking at me which sponge my wife wants.

I pay for the sponge. It costs $23, which sounds like a lot until you consider that it is the Cadillac of sponges. It comes with a sheet of instructions titled HOW TO CARE FOR YOUR NATURAL SPONGE. I am confident that my wife will be thrilled.

So I’m in a fairly positive mood as I leave Spongeorama. It’s not as pleasant or elaborate as Weeki Wachee, but it is an attraction that combines an educational experience with an opportunity to purchase quality household products. After some deliberation, I decide to award it 2 out of 5 out-of-order Mold-A-Matics.

If you’re in the Tarpon Springs area, you should definitely stop in, check out the museum and catch the movie. And if you’re in the market for a quality natural sponge, your search is over: I’ll sell you the one I got for my wife.