|Famous Weeki Wachee Mermaids Thrill Patients at All Children's Hospital|
Kids, parents and staff members all wanted to get a peek at the trio of guests, decked out in full Mermaid regalia from the popular attraction on the north Suncoast.
Walking on land in their green tails wasn't an option, so the three women - Mermaid Nikki, Mermaid Denise and Mermaid Tara - were rolled room to room in wheelchairs. Children looked up from their beds in surprise, many wide-eyed or tongue-tied, as the visitors rolled in to chat and hand out stuffed toy mermaids, pirates and parrots.
Kids and nurses alike posed for photos - and reached out to touch the shimmering green tails. A 5-year-old boy named Sam couldn't have visitors, so the mermaids - all mothers of young children themselves -- waved to him from the hall. "Thank you," he said softly, holding one of the stuffed toys. "He's so adorable," said Tara, visibly touched by the moment as she waved back.
A 5-year-old girl named Madison, fresh off a Tuesday visit from Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Alex Cobb, held court with the mermaid contingent, explaining that she wanted to be a mermaid doctor when she grows up - a choice the visitors all approved of enthusiastically.
All three women are Weeki Wachee veterans: Denise and Nikki each with nine years of experience braving the cold water and learning to hold their breath for up to two minutes at a time; Tara has worked at the park for four years. They love their jobs entertaining big crowds, but each clearly enjoyed the chance to connect one-on-one with the youngsters at All Children's.
"We just love to get out and meet the kids," said Weeki Wachee's mermaid manager Marcy Terry, a veteran mermaid performer herself.
"They recognize us, and of course - Disney has helped play up the mermaid part, which has helped us at Weeki Wachee," she continued. "But we're the real mermaids. We get to go out and actually meet the kids, and they can see our tails and touch them, and ask us mermaid questions. Everybody needs to have a little sunshine in their day."
"The mermaids really look forward to coming here," added park public relations director John Athanson, who arranged a previous visit last year. "They're in their element interacting with kids. You can see a professional athlete on any given day, but to see a real live mermaid - that doesn't happen all the time."
It's not easy becoming a Weeki Wachee mermaid. At an open audition last week, more than 40 hopefuls showed up - and only three made the cut. It takes three-to-six months to learn one part for a new show, each of which lasts 30-45 minutes. Mermaids also have to get scuba-certified and master the art of performing and cavorting while holding their breath - and getting air from submerged tubes.
The hardest part of the job? Getting used to working long days in the cold water of Weeki Wachee Springs - a far cry from the warmth they savored Wednesday with the kids, awash in a special morning of mermaid magic.