12/08/2013 07:57 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Weeki Wachee Is The Amazing Place Where Mermaids Rule

courtesy of Weeki Wachee

Florida may be the only place in the world where mermaids are among the state employees.

Weeki Wachee Springs, about an hour from Tampa, bills itself as " The Only City Of Live Mermaids!" And the exclamation point is well deserved. Not long ago, this Old Florida attraction -- where every day, women dressed as mermaids perform shows underwater -- seemed like it was going to sleep with the fishes.

The first mermaid show went on in 1947, in an underwater theater beside a massive natural spring that had been partially tamed by a man named Newt Perry. Here's how the story's told on the Weeki Wachee website:

Newt scouted out pretty girls and trained them to swim with air hoses and smile at the same time. He taught them to drink Grapette, a non-carbonated beverage, eat bananas underwater and do aquatic ballets. He put a sign out on U.S. 19: WEEKI WACHEE.

The first show at the Weeki Wachee Springs underwater theater opened on October 13, 1947 -- the same day that Kukla, Fran and Ollie first aired on that newfangled invention called television, and one day before Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier. The mermaids performed synchronized ballet moves underwater while breathing through the air hoses hidden in the scenery.

In the ensuing years, Elvis came to visit, as did other celebrities of various stripes (Don Knotts among them).

The American Broadcasting Company bought Weeki Wachee in 1959; this is described as the park's "heyday" in the New York Times, when there were nine mermaid shows per day and "according to park lore, half a million visitors came each year."

That number shrank dramatically in the not-so-heydecades that followed Disney World's opening in 1971. In the 2000s, faced with some tough financial straits, Weeki Wachee Springs became a Florida State Park, albeit one with mermaids on the payroll earning about $13 an hour, park spokesperson John Athanason told HuffPost, during a recent visit.

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Weeki Wachee

Athanason -- a native Floridian who's been at the park since 2001 -- said there are around 20 mermaids on staff these days, seven of whom were recently hired. One of these is 22-year-old Marissa Perez, wearing a track suit and hanging around the audience area of the underwater theater, who says she tried out twice before being hired.

"I grew up watching the show as a little girl," she says. "Getting to do it as an adult is a great opportunity."

Perez and another newly-hired mermaid, 18-year-old Maria Buckner, head off backstage to change into their costumes of colorful bikini tops and custom tails with diving fins worn underneath.

They reappear in the clear water, which sometimes also contains manatees and turtles visiting from elsewhere in the spring, and always outfitted with discreetly-placed air hoses in order to keep up the illusion of mermaids being indigenous sea creatures. Buckner and Perez are instructed by veteran Crystal Videgar who talks patiently through a microphone that projects into the water. (Athanason says it can take months before new mermaids are ready to debut in Weeki Wachee's twice-daily performance of The Little Mermaid, the Hans Christian Andersen tale in which a mermaid falls in love with a prince and give up her tail in the hopes of being with him. Upon his nuptials to another woman she dissolves into seafoam, but though her faith and good actions -- like refusing to take a witch's offer of stabbing the prince to death in exchange for becoming a mermaid once again -- she is, phew, given the possibility of an immortal soul.)

Then it's time for Videgar and another experienced swimmer to rehearse their upcoming Christmas show. They synchronize swim to Christmas carols, their long hair waving through the water, relaxed smiles on their faces, while another woman in a swimsuit that reads MERMAID across the chest, her air hose in full view, takes on the less glamorous task of scrubbing the plexiglass.

It's rather astonishing that, even with the pressures of existing near Disney, Weeki Wachee still feels like a kitschy roadside attraction; its nods to commercialism are a small adjoining water park called Buccaneer Bay and a free boat cruise along the Weeki Wachee River, a dining room and some modestly-priced mermaid costumes for sale.

2012 brought in a reported 268,000 visitors, and Athanason says his goal is to get more people into the park without losing its authenticity.

"In the 13 years that I've been here, attendance has gone up a little bit each year," says Athanason, who is considering joining up with a reality TV producer or maybe a documentary filmmaker, after having a good experience training Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton in the mermaid arts for an episode of The Simple Life. And they're not alone -- periodic mermaid camps are held, in what seems like it might be an illegal manner, only for women over the age of 30. Younger than that, Athanason explains, and the trainees might take what they've learned elsewhere, to compete with the park.

Indeed, if Weeki Wachee seems like it hasn't aged a day, and despite the shades of magic, the people who work here are still beholden to the all-too-human laws of nature. Unlike Andersen's mermaids, Weeki Wachee's employees don't turn to foam once they lose their tails. Instead, retired mermaids come back from time to time for special performances. Athanason, who himself is in his mid-40s, says that mermaids do tend to quit their regular duties once they graduate from college or have kids. They know when it's time to leave, he says, explaining that one day it'll be time for him to go as well.

"When I started, I was like an older brother," he says. "Now dad. When it becomes time for me to be grandpa..."

But here comes former mermaid Robyn Anderson, who is now the park's assistant manager -- as well as the mayor of the city of Weeki Wachee (pop. 4, down from 12 in 2010).

"Mermayor," she says, adorned in a green polo shirt, not a mermaid getup, with her blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. "Looks great on my resume."

Anderson, originally from New Jersey, came to Weeki Wachee in 1994. She's survived the accident that took her out of the water, ethics complaints, tussles with regulatory agencies and a near-closure and was instrumental in the deal that made this place a state park -- and she didn't even have to stab a prince to do it.

"The biggest thing is to stand your ground, fight for what you believe in," Anderson says. "And be true to yourself."