Monday, March 23, 2020

Keeping the MerMagic Alive with Weeki Wachee's Barbara Wynns

Soul-transporting Interview with Weeki Wachee Veteran, Barbara Wynns

by Joy Siren

Weeki Wachee Wynns
"I live a really wonderful magical mermaid life."

Those were the first words I heard during my enchanting hour-long phone conversation with Barbara, a queen among mermaids.  What follows are my questions and notes, roughly taken in between bouts of wonder and delight at everything Barbara had to say.  If she'd never set a fin in the water she would still embody all that a mermaid should be—bright, generous, lively, good-humoured, and a genuinely beautiful spirit.  What a thrill to share her thoughts and memories of her journey through Florida's famed fresh water springs.

What first sparked Barbara's interest in becoming a mermaid?

As a Floridian, she was blessed with childhood access to the state's fresh cool springs.  At the wee age of 2, her father began taking her diving.  When she was 13 she saw her first Weeki Wachee show, an hour-long spectacle with costume changes, tight-rope walkers, water ballet, all performed underwater.  In the pre-internet era, getting contact info was not the breeze that it is today, so after 2 years of research, young Barbara managed to track down a P.O. Box address for Weeki Wachee.  The day after Thanksgiving of 1966, in her senior year of high school, she was granted an interview. It went so well that the day she graduated she moved onto the Weeki Wachee grounds to begin her career as a mermaid.

What was a typical work shift like? 

"We were owned by ABC at the time; and we were called the '8th wonder of the world.'  We were open 9am-5pm with shows on the hour.  We usually performed 3 shows, with a 4th show done at time and a half.  At the time, there were 32 girls on the roster.  Now there are 12.  Few roadside attractions have survived over the years.  People worked there out of love to keep it alive.  Now it is owned by the state and is the only underwater state park with an attraction." So its future looks promising.

Frolicking about in spring water may look easy but it takes skill and athleticism. What sort of training is required for a WW mermaid?

Performers need to be scuba-certified to utilize the underwater air hoses. As for the time spent underwater, it was generally dictated by the length of a song and its choreography.  The only real issue to deal with is the chill that sets in after getting out of the springs.  But nothing a hot shower can't remedy.  Her primary advice is, "Don't be afraid of the water. It's a thrill to be in there. It's magical."

What years did she perform with WW?
Barbara's record at Weeki Wachee is impressive for any industry.  She performed 1967-69, 1972-75, and steadily since 1997.  She also volunteers at their annual Sirens of the Deep camp "for the good of the park. We get all walks of life at mermaid camp. It touches hearts."

Over the decades, what sorts of changes has she seen?

Ever since the movie, Splash, tails have been more prevalent.  When Barbara started, the act was of the Esther Williams synchronized underwater ballet variety, performed 15 feet below the surface with buoyancy control, multiple costume changes and air lifts.  With Splash's popularity in the '80's, tails became all the rage.

Does she stay in contact with many of her mer-chums?

"The reunions make it possible to reconnect with others I swam with."

Her home has become known as Mermaid Mansion and one weekend a month it serves as host venue to a mermaid slumber party.

"4-5 of us are a pod and make road trips. We speak the same language. It's a sisterhood... Being a mermaid is a passion. You never let it go."

In 1997 Barbara and her merpals were invited to perform at the park's 50-year reunion.  They were to do one show.  But people were so wildly enthusiastic that her reunion group — then 26 strong, now down to 8 — has been performing as often as twice monthly for the last 15 years.

What did she enjoy most about her time at WW? 

"Just being in the magical spring. We get to float doing ballet. The spring is 100 yards in any direction and you are as close to floating and flying as you can be."

Does she have any advice for upcoming mers who are considering going pro?

"Don't give up hope, keep trying.  Whether or not you work at Weeki Wachee, be your mermaid self!"

The one, the only... Weeki Wachee!
"I am a Florida based artist living near to Weeki Wachee home of the Live Mermaids.  As a cancer survivor I have used Mermaids as my alter ego to express my feelings through painting.  I admire the strength and courage of these beautiful creatures and believe there's a Mermaid in every woman." ~Patricia Ritter

{originally published 2 June 2013}