We are sitting on three intimate rows of wooden benches in a dark, cool room, staring at a giant saltwater aquarium that stretches before us. An immense stingray, small shark and colorful fish glide past. My children stare in wonder, walking up and pressing their noses against the glass before sitting back down.
But we are not here for the fish. Steel drum music floats from speakers and we eagerly await an important arrival.
At the top righthand corner of the tank, the hint of an ethereal, rose gold tail appears in the water, moving ever so slightly to the music.
“It’s a mermaid!” my 3-year-old daughter breathes, transfixed.
She believes it. I can see it. The siren hasn’t even fully appeared, and yet my daughter’s face could brighten the world.
This is why we came here. And it is pure magic.
A quest for mermaids and manatees in Florida
Our vacation plans started — as family ideas often do — with a story.
“It’s a mermaid!” my 3-year-old daughter breathes, transfixed.
My three young children, (ages 6, 3 and 3), had just seen Disney’s 1989 film “The Little Mermaid” for the first time, and I was filled with nostalgia from my own childhood of growing up in the ‘80s and seeing mermaids perform at the cavernous underwater theater of Weeki Wachee Springs. I spent years fervently believing that the shimmery tails of the graceful swimmers were real, and I wanted my children to feel that same sense of wonder while still young enough to believe that they just might be.
Located about four hours northwest from our West Palm Beach home, Citrus County (just north of Weeki Wachee) also beckoned with a new mermaid attraction: Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter. When researching overnight accommodations, I discovered the Plantation on Crystal River, a historic resort located in the only place in the U.S. where visitors can legally swim with Florida’s original mermaids: manatees.
A zany idea took shape: drive to Florida’s west coast for the weekend, visit both mermaid attractions and stay in the resort where we can spot manatees. A siren-filled weekend, steeped in Old Florida charm. I somehow convinced my husband of this plan, and we booked our trip for the following weekend.
Saltwater mermaids and sea stars on Florida’s Gulf Coast
So that is how we found ourselves in the rural, unincorporated town of Lecanto, searching for the Mertailor’s lair. We passed by twice before spotting it: a sparkling gem along a sturdy, practical state road. From a distance, it could be mistaken for an aquarium shop; get closer, and you’ll realize it contains much more.
Along with a menagerie of land animals such as turtles and colorful macaws, the aquarium boasts interactive saltwater touch tanks that include encounters with sea stars, crabs and stingrays. My children lingered over the rays’ tank, sticking their hands in up to their elbows and shrieking as the flat, smooth animals glided past. At the sea star tank, we learned that the brightly-colored invertebrates often live up to 35 years, and my oldest carefully examined the hundreds of tiny tube feet along the underside of their muscular arms.
But of course: We were here for mermaids.
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With multiple 45-minute shows per day in the aquarium’s 30-foot tank to choose from, we gathered with other families as a mermaid performed graceful underwater tricks, lip-synching to songs and breathing through specialized underwater air hoses. With prime seating just a few feet from the glass, my children waved to the mermaid and were thrilled when she waved back. I even caught my 3-year-old son blowing her kisses. Her dark hair swirled as she blew bubbles and swam upside down in a perfect figure eight.
This remarkable business is the brainchild of Eric “The Mertailor” Ducharme, 33, a tailor and former performer at Weeki Wachee Springs who began designing and selling mermaid tails at age 9. His tails were a hit, and today, he has a full staff of tailors to help him keep up with the demand for custom-made, hyper-realistic swimmable silicone tails. Ducharme and his business are featured in Netflix’s 2023 documentary series “Merpeople,” which played on televisions throughout the aquarium as we explored its depths.
After our first mermaid performance (we stayed for two), I noticed that one of the employees stationed at a touch tank was the mermaid we’d just seen perform. My children chatted easily with her about stingrays but didn’t seem to recognize her. I wondered where they thought the mermaid from the show had disappeared to (back to the ocean?). Out of earshot, I told her how much we’d loved the show.
From her, I learned that their beautiful silicone tails can weigh as much as 60 pounds — but since these trained divers perform in saltwater (which increases buoyancy), the tails help them stay submerged. Water also decreases visibility — something I had forgotten as I watched her easily wave to her young fans during the show.
It was incredible how easy these performers made it look, while I could scarcely imagine how many months of underwater training it must have taken to master.
On our way out, we stepped into the gift shop, packed with every mermaid-themed souvenir imaginable. An employee gave my children three tiny silicone mermaid tails, each just bigger than a thimble. They treasured those tails as if they were precious gifts. I was so happy we’d taken this trip.
Ancient mermaids and a seafood feast at Crystal River
Back in the car, we turned down a lovely street lined with oak trees to the Plantation on Crystal River, the entrance of which was highlighted with an ornate, Italian marble fountain. Stone manatee sculptures of all shapes and sizes sent water cascading into the fountain’s basin, encircled with colorful sidewalk murals.
Located in the “Manatee Capital of the World,” Crystal River’s 60-year-old landmark resort sits on 232 acres surrounding spring-fed King’s Bay.
We immediately dropped our bags in our room to walk along the water. It wasn’t long before we spotted a pair of people on standup paddleboards, staring intently into the water. As we watched the water ripple around them, the man lost his balance and plunged briefly into the bay. We saw an enormous grey snout surface as the surprised sea cow swam to our side of the water.
My children were ecstatic. In the transparent water beneath the dock where we stood, the graceful manatee glided past, its sizable tail propelling it through the water. We then saw a mother and her calf, followed by another gentle giant. An employee later told us that since we’d come during the summer, there were an estimated 40 to 50 manatees in the bay — but during the winter months, that number swells to more than 1,000 as manatees from colder regions seek out the springs’ year-round 72-degree warmth. We vowed to return during the cooler months and swim with manatees on our next visit.
That evening, we feasted on fresh-caught seafood at the resort’s West 82° Bar and Grill. We ate hot buttermilk biscuits and gobbled up tender blackened scallops, shrimp, salmon and hush puppies. We ordered gator bites and crab cakes. We drank delicious tropical drinks in the waning summer light and watched local fishing boats arriving with their bounty. It was Florida much as it had been during its mid-century heyday, and it was perfection.
Freshwater mermaids and a classic Golden Age attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park
The next morning, we arrived early to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park. I fiercely loved this park as a child, and I fell further in love with it when I worked as a newspaper reporter for The Tampa Tribune’s Hernando bureau and was assigned to cover the park as my beat.
On my last day of work, the park’s staff invited me to be a mermaid for an afternoon. It was unforgettable — and so much more difficult to swim with a tail than I’d imagined.
Now I had arrived with my children in tow, hoping that they would feel the same adoration I always had for this special place. The history of the park alone is mesmerizing, with many aspects that remain unchanged from its glory days as the first of Florida’s famous roadside attractions.
The iconic fountain sculpture of two underwater performers still sits high atop a 25-foot pillar at the park’s entrance, and a line of regal mermaid sculptures greets visitors. I imagine that Elvis Presley may have paused to admire them when he visited in 1961, or perhaps synchronized swimming star Esther Williams, who brought national fame to the attraction with the 1949 film Neptune’s Daughter.
With sloped ramps that lead down to an underwater theater with huge glass windows, the park has been offering its world-famous mermaid shows since 1947 — a tradition that has remained unbroken. A state park since 2008, swimmers still lip synch and perform intricate choreography to full-length musical shows (like the park’s original version of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”) three times per day.
Unencumbered by diving tanks and breathing through free-flowing air hoses, these performers are beautiful and strong, yes, but also masters at breathwork and illusion.
We eagerly crowded into the 400-seat underwater theater, the view of the expansive limestone basin covered by huge curtains. The music swelled and the curtains rose, giving way to a sight that was just as wonderous as ever: a brilliant aqua, crystal-clear panoramic view of the spring-fed basin. Sea grass floated gently in the water as a school of fish darted past.
All at once, there they were: first one mermaid swimming up from the depths, then three more. They were breathtaking, with sleek fabric tails in shades of radiant purple and burgundy.
We watched, mesmerized, as three of the swimmers held onto each other’s tails and swam in a giant circle, creating a seamless underwater formation 20 feet below the water’s surface. The fourth mermaid swam through their circle, completing the display.
My children were utterly smitten.
The show so dazzled my kids that they pretended to be Ariel, Eric and the Sea Witch for weeks afterward.
Marooned in the mermaid photo tent later that day as the rain poured down around us (a happy coincidence), our family posed for photos with one of the finned beauties. My children climbed into her lap, admired her bright pink tail and chatted about her life as a mermaid. I have similar photos of me as a child. I was struck by how time stands still here.
With a world so increasingly enamored with fantasy delivered on a screen, I’m grateful there are places my family can visit together, and “mermaids” we can see in person — be they performers at the state’s oldest attraction, at a more recently imagined oasis, or the state’s protected real-life versions in waterways just a drive away.
If you go
Weeki Wachee Springs: 6131 Commercial Way, Weeki Wachee; http://www.floridastateparks.org
Mertailor’s Mermaid Aquarium Encounter: 4100 W Gulf to Lake Hwy, Lecanto; http://www.mermaidaquariumencounter.com; 352-513-3278
Plantation on Crystal River: 9301 W Fort Island Trail, Crystal River; http://www.plantationoncrystalriver.com; 352-795-4211