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May 27, 2018
Siren's call: Bringing Weeki Wachee's clamshell roof back to life

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Florida Originals

Siren's call: Bringing Weeki Wachee's clamshell roof back to life

| 7/24/2015

Built in the 1950s, the clamshell roof atop Weeki Wachee’s mermaid theater was designed to attract attention from motorists passing by on U.S. 19. In the 1970s, however, the clamshell was replaced with a flat, drab roof of shingles.

For years, John Athanason mourned the loss of the clamshell. He grew up in Ocala, about 70 miles away, and visited the park frequently en route to visit his grandparents in Tarpon Springs. To him, the old roof represented the Florida of his childhood, and he thought it was a shame it hadn’t been preserved.

“I’ve always had a special fondness for that kind of thing,” he says. “I like throwbacks.”

Which is why he ultimately ended up getting a job at Weeki Wachee.

Worried about the mermaid attraction’s survival, Athanason left Silver Springs, where he was the attraction’s marketing manager, in 2001 to run Weeki Wachee. The park had gone through several owners. None seemed willing to spend what was necessary to keep the attraction alive — it needed at least $1 million worth of repairs and maintenance.

In 2003, Athanason helped create and implement the park’s “Save Our Tails” marketing campaign, which solicited donations and kept the park going until the state decided to buy it in 2008. Now called Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, the attraction is on the upswing. Attendance last year surpassed 300,000, nearly twice the average before it became a state park. There are four mermaid shows a day in the 400-seat mermaid theater. There used to be three.

There’s other good news, too.

When Athanason came to the park, he began hearing rumors that the original roof still existed beneath the faded shingles.

One day in 2005, he decided to find out for sure.

“I was able to look underneath the roof in a few places and shine a flashlight in and I could see part of the clamshell,” he says. “I couldn’t believe it was still there. It was a great moment for me, but it only lasted for about a minute because then I started thinking about how much it would cost to bring it back.”

The money arrived this year — 10 years after Athanason’s discovery — as part of a Florida Park Service master plan for improvements to Weeki Wachee. Removing the shingles and restoring the clamshell cost about $160,000. The work will be completed by the end of this year.

“It’s great to see the Florida Park Service carrying out one of their goals to preserve Florida’s history and architecture,” says Denise Tenuto, president of the Friends of Weeki Wachee Springs State Park.

The park’s master plan includes nearly $14 million in other projects to be completed in phases. A $500,000 splash pool is next. Future projects include $2 million in parking lot upgrades to improve traffic flow and keep pollutants from washing into the nearby spring. The plan also includes a $1.5-million museum and interpretive center.

“The state has great plans for this park, and I’m glad,” Athanason says. “There’s something about this place that’s magical in a way. It just kind of captivates you and grabs ahold of you and doesn’t let go.”

Gunfight at Ocala Corral

John Athanason’s fondness for Florida roadside attrafctions started when he was a child. He grew up 3 miles from Silver Springs and took many trips along the Silver Springs Headspring and the Silver River in a glass-bottom boat. But his favorite park was Six Gun Territory, which simulated a lawless western town. He remembers riding on a train that got robbed. Inevitably, the bank would get held up and a good guy and a bad guy would have a gunfight. “I have fond memories of that place,” he says. It’s a shopping center now.

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