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A real, live mermaid at Weeki Wachee.

When did Florida become a national punchline? Was it when the mayor of Inglis formally banned Satan? When a Waffle House conversation led a state lawmaker to propose bringing back the firing squad? When an on-the-lam monkey attacked a St. Pete senior citizen? I’m sure men in other states have smuggled heroin inside burritos, but when a Bradenton man did so last year, it fit perfectly into a narrative that has turned “Florida” into convenient shorthand for everything offbeat and kooky.

But as the curtains go up on the Weeki Wachee mermaid show, I realize Florida’s identity as an oddball mecca goes way, way back—farther back than any Twitter hashtag could ever capture. My wife, two young sons and I are seated in a C-shaped 400-seat underwater amphitheater, with a bank of windows that offer views into a giant, rocky cave filled with clear, 74.2-degree water. On the other side of the glass, two women dressed in sparkling mermaid tails gyrate and spin, lip-synching along to a disco track with lyrics about Weeki Wachee.

Mermaids have been cavorting here since 1947. In the early days, the women stood on the side of the road in bathing suits to attract drive-by tourists. Even Elvis once stopped in for a show. Today, a small group of mermaids and mermen put on three 15-minute shows a day, floating and spinning to the sounds of Enya and “God Bless the U.S.A.” Sheets of bubbles punctuate the climax of each show. The blue light of the springs bathes the faces of my two boys, who watch with mouths agape.

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The weirdest part of this whole thing? The kitschy show takes place inside a state park—Weeki Wachee Springs State Park, entrance only $13 per adult, and no additional charge for the show—protected by government fiat since 2008. The mermaids may capture the headlines, but the springs are the real star, making up a valuable, fragile part of the Florida ecosystem. They run at least 400 feet deep—no one has yet found a bottom—and they pump more than 117 million gallons of fresh water every day into the Weeki Wachee River, which winds its way northwest to the Gulf of Mexico.

To better grasp the ecology of the springs, snag a seat aboard the Aqua Belle, the park’s slow-moving pontoon boat (also included in the park entrance fee), for a river wildlife cruise. The boat glides over pristine waters that turn the sand at the channel’s bottom into abstract teal patterns. The property also boasts a small beach and a few big slides that empty into the main cauldron of the springs.

The park has seen better days. The paint on the concrete walls and floors is flaking; wooden overhangs have rotted away; the fabric on the Aqua Belle’s seats is torn. But those details only accentuate the charm, the feeling you’re walking into a long-lost chapter of Florida history. This ain’t Disney World, and that’s the point.

Aside from the springs, there’s not much reason to visit the town of Weeki Wachee, which sits about two hours north of Sarasota. You can do the park and be home in a day, no question. But we’re stretching our trip into a weekend, so we wind our way west, out to Pine Island, a beautiful outcropping of land amid a huge sprawl of sawgrass and saltwater, then we cruise up to Homosassa, where our tour of Old Florida continues.

We crash at the not-so-resorty Riverside Resort, which offers plain rooms and direct views of a small river island populated by spider monkeys. ($90 for us all.) Dinner goes down at Neon Leon’s, a “zydeco steakhouse” that doubles as a Lynyrd Skynyrd shrine. The food is overpriced, but the beer is cold, the sweet tea will rot your teeth and the live music is good for a boogie or two. Breakfast at The Starting Gate is a must—try two strips of fried local mullet alongside a big bowl of sticky cheese grits.

Our final stop is the Homosassa Springs Wildlife State Park, another onetime roadside attraction that has been preserved by Tallahassee, and is also only $13 per adult. We meet Lu, the park’s resident hippo and only non-native inhabitant, who’s appeared in several films and TV specials. Dozens of manatees float all around the springs, just down the path from exhibits with a graceful panther and fearsome black bears. Strange, kitschy, beautiful—all in one place. Sounds a lot like #Florida.

MORE BUDGET TRIPS

Fort Myers’ beaches are great, but there’s more to do at this budget-friendly destination. The Edison & Ford Winter Estates is lovely and relaxing, with its 20-plus acres of botanical gardens and historic buildings that used to serve as the winter home of Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Or browse shells and coral at the Shell Factory, one of the region’s longest-running attractions, which also boasts a nature park with lemurs and hissing cockroaches, and a mini-amusement park with bumper boats and a zipline.

The 1954 monster flick Creature from the Black Lagoon may have been filmed at Wakulla Springs, but sadly, it is fiction, so don’t go expecting to run into a freaky half-man, half-amphibian. What you will find at the springs, now located inside a state park just south of Tallahassee, is a massive swimming area with a two-story tower and sunbathing platforms, plus riverboat tours and a historic lodge. Don’t miss the throwback soda fountain, which slings milkshakes, malts and ice cream sodas at what the state of Florida claims is the longest marble countertop in the world.

For the ultimate affordable, quiet and restorative getaway, you can’t beat Cayo Costa State Park, an island destination reachable only by private boat or ferry. Rent a cabin or pack a tent and spend your days wandering nine miles of mostly deserted beach and pine forests. There’s little to do here but walk, look and listen. Take advantage of all that solitude by spreading out your sleeping bag in the sun and diving into a good book before napping the afternoon away.