Springs, Rivers, and Fountains: The Waters and Their Creatures Beckon

Girl swims under the water at Silver Springs: Ocala, Florida (19--)

Girl swims under the water at Silver Springs: Ocala, Florida (19--)

Image Number: C005781

Whitney's Ponce de Leon Spring: Saint Augustine, Florida (postmarked 1917)

Whitney's Ponce de Leon Spring: Saint Augustine, Florida (postmarked 1917)

Image Number: PC3414

This spring is located on John Whitney's estate, Ravenwood, and was popularized by him as the Fountain of Youth.

Tour by boat: Silver Springs, Florida picture (1914)

Tour by boat: Silver Springs, Florida picture (1914)

Image Number: N041765

"Seeing the Devil's Kitchen, Ladies Parlor and Bridal Chamber, and Lover's Leap." Glass bottom boats first appeared at Silver Springs in 1878.

The Bridal Chamber: a scene through glass bottom boats picture (19--)

The Bridal Chamber: a scene through glass bottom boats picture (19--)

Image Number: PC3326

Printed on back: "'The Bridal Chamber' gushes many feet below the surface of the water, throwing up white shell which falls gently back over the large chasm from which it comes. This Spring is coupled with a legend on romance and love, hence, the girl-face form found in the crevice-rock."

Entrance to Rainbow Springs: Rainbow Springs, Florida (195-)

Entrance to Rainbow Springs: Rainbow Springs, Florida (195-)

Image Number: N041699

Submarine boat, "Mermaid": Rainbow Springs, Florida

Submarine boat, "Mermaid": Rainbow Springs, Florida

Image Number: N041740

Tourists in a glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs: Ocala, Florida (19--)

Tourists in a glass-bottom boat at Silver Springs: Ocala, Florida (19--)

Image Number: C678703

Wakulla Springs' visitors enjoying the ride down river aboard the seatless "alligator boat" (1941)

Wakulla Springs' visitors enjoying the ride down river aboard the seatless "alligator boat" (1941)

Image Number: RC14433

Entrance to Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park near Brooksville (19--)

Entrance to Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park near Brooksville (19--)

Image Number: C675964

Also known as the "City of Mermaids," Weeki Wachee Springs opened in 1947. Founded by famous swimmer Newton Perry, the roadside attraction has been known for its "mermaids," who swim underwater for long intervals of time with the assistance of an underwater tubing system for breathing. In 2008, Weeki Wachee became a Florida State Park.

Scene showing the new underwater theater (1947)

Scene showing the new underwater theater (1947)

Image Number: C007967

The original theater was built in 1947, was submerged six feet below the surface, and held 18 people. The first underwater show was on October 13, 1947. It was later modified in the 1950s to hold a few more visitors. The theater was finally torn down in 1959. After taking the original Underwater Theater out, construction crews fabricated a stainless steel-framed structure that, when finished, could seat 500 guests. Design features such as a colorful fish mosaic inside the theater and a wavy concrete roof cast to look like a clamshell outside of the theater elaborated on the mermaid theme.

Unidentified woman drinking a coke underwater during performance as mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs (1950)

Unidentified woman drinking a coke underwater during performance as mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs (1950)

Image Number: C014549

When Newton Perry first obtained Weeki Wachee Springs in 1946, he wanted to create an attraction different from the other springs in the state. Utilizing his skills as a champion swimmer, Perry taught women how to stay underwater for long periods of time with the assistance of an underwater tubing system for breathing. While underwater, the women performed stunts, such as drinking sodas, eating bananas, and performing underwater ballet. To lure tourists to Weeki Wachee Springs, Perry advertised the women as the mermaids of the springs.

Illustrating the clarity of the water at the springs: Silver Springs, Florida (194-)

Illustrating the clarity of the water at the springs: Silver Springs, Florida (194-)

Image Number: PR10438

Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs viewing herself in a mirror (1969)

Mermaid at Weeki Wachee Springs viewing herself in a mirror (1969)

Image Number: C673475A

Underwater adajio pose (1949)

Underwater adajio pose (1949)

Image Number: C011462

Bird's eye view of Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park (1969)

Bird's eye view of Weeki Wachee Springs amusement park (1969)

Image Number: C673479A

In 1959, ABC/Paramount purchased the attraction and between 1959 and 1961 built a new theater that could hold 500 people. It was widely advertised that the cost was over $1 million.

People watching performance in the Underwater Theater at Weeki Wachee Springs near Brooksville (1969)

People watching performance in the Underwater Theater at Weeki Wachee Springs near Brooksville (1969)

Image Number: C673473

Florida's earliest tourists came to view and experience the state's many rivers, springs, and beach destinations. As early as the 1860s, many ventured to Ocala, Florida, to visit Silver Springs where steamboats chartered tourists along the Silver River to experience the natural wonders of the state. By 1878, tourists got a closer look at the underwater life when the world famous glass bottom boats appeared at Silver Springs. With the glass bottom boats, tourists were able to see the natural features of the springs, given such dramatic names as the "Devil's Kitchen" and "Lover's Leap."

Promoters employed the myths and legends of Florida, such as the Fountain of Youth, to lure patrons. Attractions featuring water, such as springs, often competed with each other by featuring new gimmicks to showcase the clarity of the waters and the uniqueness of the features at a particular spring. New ways of competing for visitors included technological innovations such as "submarine" boats and viewing areas that peered underwater, and elaborate performances by staff members.

At the end of World War II, another water-inspired roadside attraction opened in Hernando County. In 1947, champion swimmer Newton Perry opened Weeki Wachee Springs to the public. To lure tourists to his attraction, Perry constructed an Underwater Theater where tourists could sit and view the wildlife in the springs. To further differentiate Weeki Wachee from other roadside attractions such as Silver Springs, Perry also trained women to stay underwater for long periods of time, with the help of an underwater tubing system used for breathing, while also performing stunts and ballet. Later known as the "City of Mermaids," Perry advertised these women as the mermaids of Weeki Wachee.