SPRING HILL, Fla. - Long before Disney World and Busch Gardens became the destinations of choice for visitors and Florida residents alike, the state's freshwater springs once attracted tourists by the thousands. Many of these "swimming holes" still remain in their natural state. Others have become wards of the state. A few were acquired by entrepreneurs and turned into roadside attractions, such as Weeki Wachee Springs, home of Florida's only mermaid show.
Fed by a first-magnitude spring that discharges millions of gallons of water each day, the Weeki Wachee flows roughly 8 miles through a variety of habitat before emptying into the Gulf of Mexico near Bayport. The river is a favorite haunt of the West Indian manatee and a variety of other rare or endangered species, including river otter, wood storks and the American bald eagle.
Most Floridians are familiar with the Old Florida amusement park, which opened in 1947, went through some hard times and now is operated by the Florida State Park Service. The park allows swimming and scuba diving if you come with a registered dive shop.
Newton Perry knew he had found something special when he first set eyes on the spot the Seminoles had named "Weeki Wachee" or "Little Spring." The swimming hole had been an impromptu dumping ground. Perry, who had trained underwater demolition teams during World War II, cleaned out the old rusted refrigerators and began experimenting with diving equipment.
Newt, as Perry was known to his friends, taught some local girls to do aquatic ballets while breathing off air hoses under 20 feet of water and people lined up to have a look. Visit on any weekend day nearly 70 years later and you’ll still find crowds at this first-class Florida State Park. 6131 Commercial Way, Spring Hill, FL 34606, (352) 592-5656.