WEEKI WACHEE –
Ann Wallace was not going to take no for an answer.
Years ago, her daughter learned of a place in Florida that has mermaids. When she discovered there was a two-day camp, her heart was set on going. She was not about to be convinced otherwise.
Madison Wallace is 17 years old. She is old enough to legally drive and already has begun looking at colleges.
Most of her peers last weekend were still in elementary school. The Mermaid Camp – held mostly every weekend during the summer at Weeki Wachee Springs – has an age limit. No one younger than 7 and no one older than 14 can be admitted.
“I said, ‘Please let her come,'” recalled Ann Wallace. “This is her dream.”
An exception was made.
When she was a young girl, Madison Wallace would put a ring around her feet and swim with her legs together. It was her way of imitating the way mermaids move in the water. She even taught her friends how to do it, her mother said.
If that wasn’t enough, Wallace shares the same name – Madison – as Darryl Hannah’s character in “Splash.” It seemed there were some outside forces at work that kept augmenting her fascination with mermaids.
On Saturday, Wallace was seated on the floor inside the mermaid villa rubbing glitter on her bare legs. Her younger sister, Meredith, 14, emerged out of the locker room and joined her.
The sisters live in Hartsville, S.C. They made a special trip 500 miles south just for the camp. They spent most of the week with their family in Clearwater.
“We came down here for this, but we thought we’d make it a week-long vacation,” Wallace said.
The sisters laughed as they talked about the elder’s long-time interest in mermaids. Meredith Wallace didn’t want her sister to be alone among a group of kids, so their mother made a second reservation. Ann Wallace joked it was a way for the younger daughter to attend two camps this summer instead of one, which is normally the limit.
“I think she felt pity for me actually,” Madison Wallace said of her sister.
Meredith Wallace wants to make it known to everyone she isn’t the girly type. She doesn’t share her sister’s love for mermaids or anything fantastical.
“I’m into athletics,” she said. “Basketball, tennis …”
As she was about to find out, the amount of swimming involved in being a mermaid would tire mostly any athlete.
This year, 14 camps were included on the schedule – two in April, three in May, three in June, four in July and two in August. All of the slots were filled. Next year’s dates will be released in February.
There is a maximum of nine participants for each camp. Mermaid Lauren Dobson, who is working her second summer at Weeki Wachee, was the supervisor.
She was responsible for nine girls. She had to teach them a variety of balletic moves – including the dolphin, pinwheel, pikes and side leaps. She showed them how to put on their makeup and wear their wraps over their swimsuits. When one girl discovered she hadn’t packed a suit, she wasted no time contacting her mother.
She even ordered lunches for the campers.
Dobson volunteered to run the camp after last year’s mermaid accepted a job elsewhere. Her bosses knew she would be perfect for it. The 19-year-old college student is a natural around kids.
Secondly, she was a product of the camp herself.
Dobson’s mother is a former mermaid. When her daughter was 11 years old, she enrolled her in the camp. It paid dividends six years later when she applied for a mermaid job while still a senior in high school.
Hernando Today was there to cover her tryout. She was the only one hired out of the seven who auditioned.
“While I was auditioning, it all came back to me,” Dobson said. “I remembered how to do the pinwheel. I hadn’t done it in six years.
“I love doing this because it’s so much fun,” she continued. “I was there. I know how they look up to us.”
Then she looked over her shoulder to make sure no one was around.
“Sometimes, I wonder if they should,” she joked.
The camp runs for eight hours each day. At the end, the students give a performance for their families, who watch from the underwater theater.
Ann Wallace arrived to pick up her daughters Saturday. That was when she disclosed her daughter’s mania with mermaids. She believed she was destined to become one.
As Madison Wallace prepares for college, she is considering moving to Florida. She already knows what she’d like to do during her summer vacations. She told her mother she either wants to work at Disney World – or at Weeki Wachee Springs.
She took a major step last weekend. Maybe she won’t be the only one in the family to do so.
A few moments later, she emerged out from the villa and walked toward her mother. She was still soaking wet and wrapped in a towel.
“It was fun,” she said to the reporter standing a few feet away.
A few seconds later came her sister. Her eyes were open a little wider.
“It was awesome!” she said.
Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or [email protected]