Af­ter bout with can­cer, mother high­tails it to mer­maid camp in Cen­tral Florida

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Travel & Life - By Amy Biz­zarri

A two-day camp at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, north of Tampa, trans­forms a breast can­cer survivor and mother of two into a care­free mer­maid.

WEEKI WACHEE — Few pos­i­tives sprout from a bout with breast can­cer. The first time I lay prone at the cen­ter of the “Star Wars”-like ma­chine that would blast me with ra­di­a­tion, I made a con­scious de­ci­sion to ban­ish fear from my brain and fo­cus on my travel bucket list, which had come to a stand­still in the rush of work, rais­ing chil­dren as a sin­gle mom and, well, life.

No. 1 on my list was a visit to Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

My fa­ther had waxed nos­tal­gic about this mag­i­cal spring, an hour’s drive north of Tampa, which he vis­ited on a fam­ily road trip from Chicago to Florida in the ’50s. Named by the Semi­nole In­di­ans, the crys­tal blue swim­ming hole ranks as one of Florida’s 30-some first-mag­ni­tude springs, a des­ig­na­tion bestowed on springs dis­charg­ing at least 64 mil­lion gallons of wa­ter a day.

It’s also the only spring in the world pop­u­lated by mer­maids.

Since 1947, a team of mer­maids has per­formed un­der­wa­ter shows for spec­ta­tors in what’s now a 400-seat sub­merged the­ater, out­fit­ted with sub­ma­rine-style glass win­dows.

When I found out about a two-day mer­maid camp that trains the over-30-year-old crowd in the ways of the mer­folk, I signed up stat. That’s the gift of breast can­cer: You re­al­ize there isn’t any time to lose. As luck would have it, on the one-year an­niver­sary of the date I clanged the end-of-treat­ment cym­bal at the Lynn Sage Com­pre­hen­sive Breast Cen­ter in Chicago, I dived into my mag­i­cal mer­maid ad­ven­ture.

New­ton Perry, a le­gendary Navy Seals trainer, put this quiet cor­ner of Florida on the map in the late 1940s when he built the sub­ter­ranean the­ater and placed a “Mer­maids Wanted” ad in a lo­cal news­pa­per. Weeki Wachee’s Hol­ly­wood-style, sunken shows fea­tured elab­o­rate sets, com­pli­cated mu­si­cal num­bers and stunts like eat­ing a banana and sip­ping a Coke … en­tirely un­der­wa­ter. The amaz­ing acts at­tracted not only tourists but also Hol­ly­wood; the park served as the set for sev­eral movies, in­clud­ing “Mr. Pe­abody and the Mer­maid” (1948) and “Nep­tune’s Daugh­ter” (1949).

The Sirens of the Deep Mer­maid Camp is a way for 30-an­dolder land­lub­bing women to test the wa­ters as mer­maids for a week­end. (There’s also a Ju­nior Mer­maid Camp for kids ages 7 to


The eight women in my ses­sion ranged in age from 30 to 60. We came from dif­fer­ent places — Los An­ge­les, Mil­wau­kee, Chicago — but we all shared a love of wa­ter and a com­mon goal: to step out of our or­di­nary lives and into the deep blue spring. Each of us was paired with a re­tired Weeki Wachee mer­maid, a “Le­gendary Siren” to help us learn this un­usual new skill set.

My first chal­lenge was fig­ur­ing out how to squeeze my lower body into a very tight, span­dex mer­maid tail — while wear­ing scuba fins.

The sec­ond chal­lenge was try­ing to avoid fall­ing flat on my butt while walk­ing, on land, to­ward the div­ing lad­der, a dis­tance of about 15 feet, in afore­men­tioned scuba fins and span­dex tail.

The third chal­lenge was brav­ing the spine-tin­gling tem­per­a­ture of the fresh­wa­ter spring, hov­er­ing around a nippy 73 de­grees year-round. The sheer beauty of this peace­ful, bub­bling world made me for­get the chill.

Many of the Le­gendary Sirens are well into their 60s and 70s, but they give the con­tem­po­rary mer­maids a run for their money. My in­struc­tor, Vicki Smith, 78, still danced through the strong cur­rents with the great­est of ease. She fondly re­mem­bered per­form­ing in shows back in the late ’50s, when “div­ing into that pris­tine world of liq­uid di­a­monds was heaven on Earth.” She even swam for Elvis when he vis­ited the park in 1961.

Vicki taught me how to gather speed by shak­ing my tail fin — a span­dex tube that bound my legs to­gether, turn­ing my scuba fins into a mono­tail. She showed me how to dol­phin-dive to­ward the cen­ter of the spring and as­cend like a swan, how to use my breath to con­trol my depth, how to wave like Ariel and how to flash a bril­liant smile, un­der­wa­ter, with my eyes wide open.

Our small group of mer­maid cam­pers worked as a team to learn the sig­na­ture Weeki Wachee wa­ter bal­let moves. We dared one an­other to dive deeper — with a heavy dose of girl-pow­ered en­cour­age­ment and lots of laugh­ter above wa­ter.

“Some peo­ple find their peace and seren­ity in the woods,” Smith said. “For us, we find it in the wa­ter.”

Some­where along the way, I for­got that I was trapped in the body of a mid­dle-aged woman: There I was, not quite a lithe wa­ter bal­le­rina, but a mom of two chil­dren, with plenty of heartaches and pain rid­ing along on my tail scales, sus­pended mid­spring in “dol­phin arch” po­si­tion, smil­ing con­fi­dently at my imag­i­nary spec­ta­tors. I’m a so-so swim­mer and as clumsy as can be on land. But I’m al­ways en­thu­si­as­tic and ready for a chal­lenge. That’s the magic of Weeki Wachee: It can truly trans­form you into a care­free mer­maid, if only you give it a chance.

Week­end camp ses­sions cost $450, with pro­ceeds ben­e­fit­ing the Friends of Weeki Wachee, a vol­un­teer-run or­ga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cated to pre­serv­ing the park’s nat­u­ral beauty and run­ning the camp.

Camp lasts from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and in­cludes lunch. Though your trainer will be with you at all times in the wa­ter, you should be com­fort­able swim­ming and tread­ing wa­ter at a depth of ap­prox­i­mately 15 feet. Evenings are free to re­lax, though a day spent in the springs guar­an­tees an early bed­time. Most mer­maids opt to stay at the nearby Mi­cro­tel Inn & Suites in Spring Hill.

The Weeki Wachee web­site en­cour­ages would-be mer­maid cam­pers to fol­low the park on Face­book and Twit­ter to get 2019 camp dates, which are ex­pected to be an­nounced in late Jan­uary or early Fe­bru­ary. Camp ses­sions sell out quickly on a first-come, first-served ba­sis.

Even if you’re not at­tend­ing mer­maid camp, a visit to the 538acre park is worth­while for a taste of Old Florida-style fun. Ad­mis­sion is $13 for adults and $8 for chil­dren ages 6 to 12. That price in­cludes ac­cess to Buc­ca­neer Bay, a spring-fed wa­ter park with a lazy river and white sand beach. Vis­i­tors can also take a re­lax­ing river­boat ride or ex­plore the ad­ja­cent Weeki Wachee River by kayak, avail­able for rent on­site.

Ad­mis­sion also gets you a seat at the daily mer­maid shows, but those per­for­mances — as well as river­boat cruises and wildlife shows — won’t re­sume un­til midMarch, due to ren­o­va­tion work at the park.

Mer­maid cam­pers cap off their ses­sion by per­form­ing a short show­case of their newly learned feats to vis­it­ing fam­ily and friends.

My kids won’t soon for­get spot­ting their tail-finned mom swim­ming up to the air­tight the­ater win­dow to blow them an un­der­wa­ter kiss.

I won’t for­get it ei­ther.


The writer, Amy Biz­zarri, gets her mer­maid on at Weeki Wachee Springs State Park dur­ing a week­end camp.

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