Roadside Attractions- page 3 | Travel | Smithsonian

Roadside Attractions

When you see mermaids cavorting just off U.S. 19 in central Florida, you may be tempted to join them

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(Continued from page 1)

Earlier I had chatted with two other members of the troupe, Gina Stremplewski, a mermaid, and Derek Brunet, who plays the part of the rescued prince. “It’s fun to be able to say you’re a mermaid,” Gina said. “The only bad part is the cold. You start to get the shakes after a half hour or so.”

The hardest thing to get used to, Beth told me, is the air hose. The performers take just enough air to maintain themselves at the proper viewing level. Novices take too much, and keep bobbing to the surface like corks. “You have to learn how to stay neutrally buoyant,” Beth said.

If you’re serious about being a mermaid, you have to work your way up like everyone else. If I were to pass my audition, I would start out as a trainee. After several months, I’d take a test to move up to swimmer. After a year or so, I’d take another test to become a full-fledged performer. Each new level would provide an increase in pay, and if I became a full-timer I’d be eligible for benefits.

Beth indicated from the control room that she was ready to go. Wearing only my baggy swim trunks, I jumped in. Grabbing onto the faux anchor, I held my breath, barely making it to 30 seconds. You can’t really see the audience without goggles or a face mask, but Weeki Wachee has an underwater sound system with powerful speakers, so you can hear people in the control room. I didn’t detect any outright laughter as I went through the rest of my audition, so I assumed I was doing OK.

Finally it was time for the concluding dolphin move. I was supposed to arch my spine, point my toes with one knee bent and spin backward in a full circle. I came up choking three times before I made it. Beth reminded me to approach the window underwater, smile and wave. “Bigger smile,” I heard someone in the control room say. “Bigger smile. That’s it. Now wave. Wave.” Then he started laughing. That’s when Beth came swimming out to me in her tail and bikini top, and we headed off for the Little Mermaid’s castle.

The magic of the roadside attraction is that it can make grown men and women feel and act like children. Maybe I’m not cut out to be a merman. But, thanks to Weeki Wachee, I could pretend for a day.

By W. Hodding Carter

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