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Renita Jablonski: The average cost of a gallon of regular gasoline is $4.10. When I filled up a couple days ago in LA, I paid $4.67. Because it costs so much to simply get anywhere these days, a lot of families are re-thinking where they’re going. Disney World, for example, may be one of the top vacation spots in Florida, but many are looking for low-cost alternatives to big theme parks.
For some, it’s back to Florida’s old roadside attractions: the glass-bottomed boats in Silver Springs; a refurbished Cypress Gardens park, and those famous mermaids at Weeki Wachee Springs. Marketplace’s Dan Grech splashed around for this one.
Dan Grech: For 60 years, young women wearing fish tails have performed an underwater act in these turquoise waters. Today’s grand finale features Mermaid Stacey. Families pack the viewing area as Mermaid Stacey dives deep down into the freshwater spring.
Announcer: There they are. Start the clocks. Her partner is now pulling up the air hose, leaving the mermaid 117 feet down, holding her breath.
The announcer invites all of us to hold our breath with her.
Mermaid Stacey is a petite blond named Stacey McConnell:
Grech: When you first got started, how long could you hold your breath under water?
Stacey McConnell: About 18 seconds. That’s how long I held it in the tryout.
That was 10 years ago. In the years that followed, Weeki Wachee Springs nearly went under.
Attendance was down, the park was in disrepair, people seemed to have lost interest in an old-timey attraction.
So the mermaids launched a “Save our Tails” campaign. They marketed Wiki Watchee a low-cost alternative to the theme parks in Orlando. Season passes go for as little as 30 bucks.
People took the bait. Last year, the park turned a profit. 61-year-old Jerry Reidenbach used to swim in the springs as a kid. He even married a former mermaid.
Jerry Reidenbach: This is native Florida, this is the Florida I grew up in. Highway 19 and US1 on the East Coast and the little attractions on the side of the road. This place is a museum. It’s 1950 right here.
The park has a different appeal to his eight-year-old granddaughter, Kalie.
Kalee: We get to see a lot of the mermaids perform. And we can go swimming.
Marketing director John Athanason says the mermaids are the brand of Weeki Wachee, like Mickey or Shamu. But the real money maker is Buccaneer Bay, a water park built into the spring that drives repeat visits.
John Athanason: The water park is really the bread and butter, it’s the financial stability of this park. It’s everything, from a financial standpoint, that keeps Weeki Wachee afloat.
In Weeki Wachee, Florida, I’m Dan Grech for Marketplace.
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