The Real Mermaids of San Marcos, Texas

September 12th, 2013

The springs of the San Marcos River in central Texas have plenty of extraordinary traits: Each day, they release about 100 million gallons of water, forming the life source for one of the longest-inhabited places in North America. They’re also the primary habitat for several endangered species, including a blind salamander found nowhere else on earth. Yet the most magical thing about the San Marcos springs is actually no longer there—its unique submersible theater, or “Aquarena,” which once gave audiences a window into an underwater world of mermaids, clowns, and a swimming pig named Ralph.

My great-aunt, Sue Cregg, was a performer at Aquarena Springs in the 1960s, and its mermaid theater was a major highlight of my childhood in nearby Austin, Texas. As a kid, I was fascinated by the mermaids and their secret language of aquatic gestures, which I attempted to master on every trip to the public pool. Family lore has it that I once watched seven mermaid shows in a row.

“When we weren’t in a show, part of our job was to make balls of frozen dog food.”

But long before this mid-century spectacle was developed, the cold waters of Spring Lake had been a destination in their own right, thanks to their endless supply of fresh water. During the fight over Texas between Mexico and the United States, the land changed hands many times, but was finally purchased by General Edward Burleson in 1845. Burleson, who briefly served as the vice president of the Republic of Texas, dammed the headwaters to run a grist mill and built a two-room cabin overlooking the newly created Spring Lake. The resulting lake inadvertently preserved thousands of artifacts from earlier settlements along the banks, items that wouldn’t be found until an underwater dig began in 1978. These archaeological discoveries suggested that various groups had lived alongside the springs for over 12,000 years.

"Come down some time real soon - we sure get lonesome here on Sunday." This colored postcard shows an early view of Spring Lake before Rogers purchased the plot.

This colored postcard shows an early view of Spring Lake before Rogers purchased the plot. Image via

The site’s tourist destination began to take shape in 1924, when A. B. Rogers bought Burleson’s homestead plot, including his ramshackle log cabin. Rogers constructed a small resort hotel on the lake, and in 1946, added glass-bottom boats to the attraction, which allowed riders to see through the clear waters down to the bubbling springs and aquatic ecosystem some 30 feet below.

Mermaids arrived at Spring Lake via Rogers’s son Paul, who founded Aquarena Springs in 1949, modeling its underwater amusements on the popular Weeki Wachee Springs resort in Florida. Weeki Wachee had opened two years earlier, pioneering the underwater theater with its air hose apparatus that allowed performers to stay submerged without heavy gear.

Left, the glass-bottom boat docks and Spring Lake hotel, and right, a view of a boat interior, circa 1930s.

Left, the boat docks and Spring Lake hotel, circa 1930s, and right, a view inside a glass-bottom boat.

In San Marcos, Paul dredged a portion of the lake and installed a custom-built submarine theater in 1950. The steel auditorium featured one wall of thick glass windows, positioned above water when the audience entered, and slowly descended once everyone was seated, providing a clear view of the underwater stage.

Paul also brought Don and Margaret Russell onboard to help launch his underwater theme park. Don had managed Weeki Wachee, and his wife, Margaret, was one of the attraction’s first mermaids. Margaret’s impressive swimming skills had scored her a stunt-double role for movie star Ann Blyth during the filming of “Mr. Peabody and the Mermaid” in 1948. At Aquarena, Don assisted with business development while Margaret became the lead trainer and choreographer for the theater’s underwater shows.

Eventually, Paul would add other features to make Aquarena one of the most-visited theme parks in Texas, including a Swiss-style gondola ride over the lake, a “Sky Spiral” or panoramic viewing room that rose to the top of a needle-shaped tower, and a kitschy, western-themed “Texana Village.” At one point, the park was even home to a basketball-playing chicken and another that would beat you at a game of tic-tac-toe. But like the fabled sirens, it was the mermaids that really drew people to Spring Lake.

Peggy Sparks holds a photo of herself taken when she worked at Aquarena. Image by Andy Sharp for the American Statesman..

Peggy Sparks holds a photo of herself taken when she worked at Aquarena. Image by Andy Sharp for the Austin American Statesman.

Peggy Sparks was one of the first underwater performers at Aquarena Springs, starting in the summer of 1950 when she was just 20 years old. Sparks had discovered Aquarena while living in Austin: At the time, her next-door neighbor was the artist and naturalist Zarh Pritchard, sometimes called “The Merman” because of his famous oil paintings executed during extended dive sessions. Pritchard wrote of the mysterious oceanic environment, “On reaching bottom, it is as if one were temporarily resting on a dissolving fragment of some far planet.” He captured these ethereal underwater vistas while on the seafloor using a specially prepared easel, canvas, and palette.

"Bream in 25 Feet of Water Off the West Coast of Scotland," by Zarh Pritchard circa 1910. Image via the Brooklyn Museum.

“Bream in 25 Feet of Water Off the West Coast of Scotland,” by Zarh Pritchard circa 1910. Image via the Brooklyn Museum.

Already a strong swimmer, Sparks was enchanted by Pritchard’s oceanscapes, which opened her eyes to the possibility of spending longer stretches of time underwater. “When we’re born, we’re used to being underwater from the womb, so I guess a little switchover doesn’t make much difference,” says Sparks.

“I loved swimming and being underwater, everything about it, but it shocked me that people could breathe underwater; I thought that only fish could do that. When I found out there was such a thing as Aquarena, I went down to see it, and I would’ve done anything to work there.” After moving to Buda, Texas, with her parents and young son, Sparks was hired as an aquamaid for the park’s underwater show. (To distinguish themselves, Aquarena’s underwater stars were always officially called aquamaids, never mermaids.)

Eventually, Sparks would learn to hold her breath for around three and a half minutes, enough time to swim the entire perimeter of the giant submersible auditorium and stage. But early in her training, Sparks was still uncomfortable staying under for so long, and using an air hose to breathe. “So I borrowed my boss’s belt,” Sparks explains. “I noticed he had an extra one hanging on his wall, and I went to the back of the show area, 15 feet down, and I belted myself to the iron pipes down there, forcing myself to breathe through an air hose. After the third strangling, I caught on. And here I am today telling you about it.”

A view of the first Aquarena stage, built to half-in and half-out of the water.

A view of the first Aquarena set, which also included an underwater stage and air-filled green room. Image via

Like many generations of aquamaids after her, Sparks trained with Margaret Russell, the show’s original director and choreographer, who taught the swimmers dance moves and special tricks, like eating or drinking while submerged. Before a show, actors would first dive down into a backstage area, an underwater green room filled with air. From there, they could communicate with the theater announcer and time their entrances.

“Two of us would come out and position ourselves even with each other, and then take a breath of air, a light one,” explains Sparks. “You didn’t get your lungs too full because then you’d come to the top, so you just take a sip.” Even without taking a full breath, Aquarena’s mermaids often performed 10 or more moves before getting fresh air from the hose. A full performance typically included an underwater picnic, a few clown stunts, and an elegant underwater ballet.

Sue Cregg worked as an aquamaid about a decade after Sparks, in the summer of 1962, but the basic techniques remained the same. “At the end of the air hose, the air spun in a little ball,” says Cregg, “and you would spray that into your mouth, bending the hose with your thumb. The first part of the training was learning how to use the air hoses, trying not to start breathing before we had the ball of air spinning.”

Left, Ralph captured mid-"Swine Dive." Right, an early shot of Aquarena's clown, Glurpo.

Left, Ralph captured mid-“swine dive.” Right, an early shot of Aquarena’s clown, Glurpo.

The system took a bit of practice to get exactly right. “We had to take in a deep breath and then let out half of it to stay underwater,” says Cregg. “Of course, you could prop your knees underneath the table part of the picnic perch to keep from floating up to the surface.” The perches were made from metal shaped into giant lily pads, and this is where the aquamaids would spread out their table settings, enjoy a snack, and drink a bottle of “Coke.”

“Like the fabled sirens, it was the mermaids that really drew people to Spring Lake.”

“Before we sat down on the picnic perches, we fed the fish frozen dog food,” says Cregg. “When we weren’t in a show, part of our job was to make balls of frozen dog food. Our meal for the picnic was celery with the strings stripped out of it so we wouldn’t choke, sprinkled with this gravel-type stuff. We’d sprinkle that from a shaker like it was salt. We also bottled our own Kool-Aid in Coke bottles. In order to drink underwater, you have to blow into the bottle to force the liquid into your mouth. And we had napkins to put in our laps; it was very elegant.” During Cregg’s time, the aquamaids also had to decorate their own swimsuits, sewing on rhinestones and sequins to resemble glittering scales.

“We would do a suspension demonstration showing how we controlled where we were in the water by the amount of air we took in and let out. It was hard to get three aquamaids to be at the same place at the same time, but we did our best. Then the three clowns would come out and swim their part of the show, and go down to the stationary air hoses on the bottom of the river.”

Mid-century aquamaids practicing their ballet moves, left, and underwater table manners, right.

Mid-century aquamaids practicing ballet moves, left, and underwater table manners, right.

The clowns, with names like Glurpo and Glurpette, would perform gimmicks like singing, smoking, and blowing perfect “smoke rings” or huge, ring-shaped bubbles from the lake bottom. In later years, the show focused on a Polynesian-themed tale of romance between a clown and an aquamaid, with a faux-volcano added to the above-water set in 1967. By the 1960s, the show also included “Ralph the Swimming Pig,” a piglet that was enticed to make his “swine dive” entry with a bottle of milk.

For most of the show, the swimmers wore no face masks, since the water was clear enough to see without them, and using fewer pieces of equipment improved the mermaid effect. In fact, aquamaids didn’t bother with fake fishtails either, putting the focus on their graceful aquatic movements. “My favorite ballet movement was called the reverse dolphin,” says Cregg. “I would cup my hands and sort of shovel the water toward my face but it would make me go backwards, and I would turn a full circle in that position.”

But being a mermaid wasn’t always as glamorous as it appeared from inside the Aquarena theater. “One time during the fish feed, a fish started snacking on a mole on my back,” says Cregg. “I kept shooing him away with my air hose, but the announcer said, ‘Miss Gatlin [Cregg’s maiden name], there’s a stream of blood coming up from your back. I think you better go backstage.'”

Even for experienced swimmers, spending so many hours under water could take its toll. “I was in the water one day during a show, and all of a sudden I began to feel panicky,” says Cregg. “I was suddenly aware of all this water around me, heavy and thick, and it seemed so unnatural for me to be breathing underwater. I couldn’t stand it, so I swam as fast as I could back to the underwater green room, and I came up and cried and cried. But there was an aquamaid named Robbie Lou waiting to take my place, and she gave me a quick, little speech. She said, ‘Sue, you’ve got to remember that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’

“Later, I talked to Mrs. Russell about it, and she said that happened to everyone who swam there. I never had that experience again, that massive claustrophobia. But I thought about it a lot in other situations in life, when I felt like I wasn’t going to make it.”

A diagram of the theater created for "Popular Mechanics" in 1952.

A diagram of the theater featured in “Popular Mechanics” in 1952.

Sparks says she was barely scraping by on her pay of $1.65 an hour. “It was seven hours a day, six days a week, whether you wanted it or not.” Though for Sparks, the toughest part of being an aquamaid was being in the cold water for so long. “Your normal blood temperature is 98.6, and let me tell you, that’s quite different from 65 or 70. The man who worked at the cafe was such a sweetie, and his wife would make a big pot of hot coffee, and he would bring it back to the surface stage where we were in between shows. We would pour it on our feet and legs because we were so cold, and we couldn’t even feel it nearly burning us.”

Since the springs at Aquarena kept the water temperature from dipping dangerously low, swimmers had to perform every day except Christmas, no matter the weather. “One time a little, old man from Chile came to see the show, and it was winter,” says Sparks. “It was sleeting. It was 26 degrees, and this other girl and I, we kept putting it off, but finally the boss said, ‘You can’t do that any longer; that old guy has been here all day long!’ So we did a 5 o’clock show, and decided instead of 55 minutes, we’d give him an hour and a half. He could’ve died at that very moment. He has the sweetest, little, old, scrawny thing, and he didn’t have any idea what the announcer was saying because he couldn’t speak English.

“When Christmas came, somebody gave the staff a huge bag full of rubber balls, and didn’t sign who it was from. But it did say, ‘This is to replace those that froze off.’ We never did know who did that.”

In 1952, Peggy Sparks campaigned underwater for both presidential candidates.

In 1952, Peggy Sparks was chosen to campaign underwater for both presidential candidates.

Despite the odd work environment, the aquamaids had plenty of fun, playing practical jokes on each other and hamming it up for the audience. “My mother was terrified of water,” says Sparks, “but I talked her into coming down to San Marcos and being there at the show. Well, she sat on the front row, with my son and my little brother. And I said to the other girl swimming the show, ‘Let’s give them a real hip-hip-hooray thing. I’ll just take one sip and you hold the air hose, and I’ll act like I’m dropping to the bottom and struggling for air, and you’ll pretend that you’re not going to reach me in time.’ I’ll tell you what, I nearly lost a perfectly good mother. She was terrified, and ran out thinking that we were drowning. But you couldn’t have drowned us for anything.

The submarine theater was featured on the front of "Popular Mechanics" in 1952.

The submarine theater was featured on the front of “Popular Mechanics” in 1952.

“I just loved the work. For years, sometimes in the night I’d wake up and I’d have one leg up in the air with my toes pointed and I would be doing those moves, the underwater ballet in my sleep. I did it over and over. Many times in my dreams, I’ve gone to Aquarena and said, ‘I came to see the show,’ and they said, ‘Well, the girl that was going to swim today got sick, and she can’t come, so we won’t be able to have the show.’ And I said, ‘Well, my name is so-and-so, and I used to work here, and I know what to do,’ and I ended up performing in the show in my dream. Now, isn’t that strange?”

Though the offbeat attractions at Aquarena might seem podunk by modern standards, in the ’50s and ’60s, the park regularly garnered national media attention. In 1952, the submersible theater made the cover of Popular Mechanics. That same year, Sparks starred in a series publicity stunts, posing as an underwater campaigner for presidential candidates Adlai Stevenson and Dwight D. Eisenhower. The bipartisan event was staged for the press, and its coverage nearly landed Sparks a national modeling contract, though she refused to sign.

Two years later, in between Sparks’s tenure and Cregg’s mermaid days, aquamaid Mary Beth Sanger and underwater clown Bob Smith held their wedding on Aquarena’s underwater stage, and the event was captured for Life Magazine. Johnny Weissmuller, the famous swimmer known for his starring role in Tarzan films, visited in 1965 to film the underwater performance for his television series.

While Cregg was at Aquarena, the senior aquamaid, Barbara Backus, also trained the swimming pigs, and was featured on the television show “What’s My Line?” for her bizarre occupation. Such odd jobs weren’t limited to Aquarena’s performers, either. “We had one man, who wore a lead belt and actually vacuumed—it was an underwater vacuum—the show area to get rid of fish debris,” says Cregg.

A spread from "Life" magazine in 1954 featured the underwater wedding at Aquarena Springs.

A spread from “Life” magazine in 1954 featured the underwater wedding at Aquarena Springs.

In the end, it was the frigid water that derailed Sparks’s mermaid career, as health issues outweighed her love of performing. “I swam with double pneumonia for about two or three weeks,” says Sparks, “and finally I just had to give it up because I kept having to go the hospital.” Even while she was sick, Sparks kept swimming in the show nearly every day. “They’d take me in, give me a penicillin shot, and I’d go in the next show,” she says.

The mermaid show continued long after Sparks and Cregg did their underwater ballets, captivating children and adults alike for more than 40 years. Even though Aquarena had lost a bit of its shine by the time I went in the late 1980s and early ’90s, visitors still loved its home-spun quality, this strange little oasis with a candle-making shop and a caged alligator pit.

Yet eventually, competition from flashier amusements led to dwindling ticket sales, and even after the property was purchased by Texas State University in 1994, the park continued its decline. The university decided to restore Aquarena’s glass-bottom boats, but shuttered its less-educational attractions, converting the site into an environmental preservation and research center. In 2012, the submarine theater was finally removed from Spring Lake in an attempt to return the ecosystem to its natural state.

A 1968 brochure for Aquarena Springs.

A 1968 brochure for Aquarena Springs. (click to enlarge)

Today, visitors can learn about the area’s ecology and history, but they won’t get any lessons on underwater eating or convincing a pig to swim. “You know that old maid’s tale that says that don’t ever go swimming until at least an hour after you have eaten because you could get cramps?” asks Sparks. “Well, crud, I’d eat a monstrous hamburger and a malt and a big bunch of French fries and get right back in, and I never had anything happen.”

For many young mermaids like Cregg and Sparks, Aquarena taught them far more than swimming skills. “I was just 17 when I went there,” continues Cregg, “and I had lived a sheltered life. Mrs. Russell was pretty stern with us aquamaids, but she also gave us great advice, like when she told me I had to sew my own ballet slippers. I said, ‘But I don’t know how to sew.’ She said, ‘Well, don’t let that stop you.'”

More Images of Historic Aquarena Springs


A 1950s-era audience inside the submarine theater.


An aerial view of the park, circa 1954.


Visitors entering the original submarine theater.


Inside a glass-bottom boat, circa 1950.


Margaret Russell, left, and Shirley Rogers, Paul Rogers's daughter, perform at Aquarena in the 1950s.


A postcard from the 1950s bearing Aquarena's unique postmark.


An aquamaid in full ballet costume.


Rehearsing for the underwater wedding in 1952.


A close-up view of the underwater window in a glass-bottom boat.


An aerial view of the renovated submarine theater and volcano set, circa 1980s.


An aquamaid with a '60s hairdo teaching Ralph to swim.


The boarding station for Aquarena's space-age Swiss Sky Ride.


One of Aquarena's underwater clowns.


The "volcano" and a performer dressed as a Polynesian native.


(For more information on the history of Aquarena Springs and the San Marcos River, visit Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine and

44 comments so far

  1. Vetraio50 Says:

    Nice one Hunter!

  2. Hunter Says:

    thanks Vetraio!

  3. tamra Says:

    My favorite article ever…..I actually cried during the video because it brought back so many vivid memories of Aquarena Springs…..then I laughed so many times reading about Sue Cregg’s accounts. There was no better place in the universe to experience and feed swans AND nutria on the weekends. Thank you Hunter for the best trip down memory lane. You’re the best!

  4. Doni Weber Says:

    Thanks for this great article! I’m Paul’s granddaughter, and my Mom is the
    Aquamaid on the right in photo #7. We miss Aquarena but memories like these are priceless.

  5. Becky Stanford Says:

    Wow Hunter! That brought back memories from 50 years ago, going to see Aunt Sue and the beautiful underwater theatre.

  6. Rita hersey Says:

    That was wonderful! I will share with many. Friend Doatsy shared with us.

  7. Hunter Says:

    Wow Doni, great to hear – she’s the one with the banana? What was her name and when did she work at Aquarena?

    Thanks to Becky and Rita for the comments. :)

  8. Vernon Treent Says:

    What a surprise for me to read about Sue Gregg, a dear friend and neighbor of mine, along with her husband Wes. I had heard about this place in San Marcos, Tx for yeears and always thought about the Glass Bottom boats. I even saw the movie of the same name. Sue had never mentioned being a part of the show. We never talked about it. Matter of fact, we’re still good friends but, alas she and Wes are not in the neighborhoood now, but I will never forget them and their friendship…Vernon

  9. Margaret McClain Says:

    Thanks for the memories. Sue Cregg is my dear friend . She is still just as beautiful and talented as she was then. She is a wonderful writer and story teller. And most of all a wonderful Christian lady.

  10. TJW Says:

    Hunter, thanks for this article. I visited Aquarena Springs with my parents in the mid sixties. I have had the pleasure of seeing the underwater performance. The name of the swimming pig when I was there was “Missy the Swimming Pig” not Ralph. I later lived in San Marcos for 3 year in the early 80’s. We would get off work at CTMC (the hospital) and snorkel in the San Marcos river in the hot summer afternoons. We would hop in at Peppers at the Mill (now some cheap ass fast food place for the college kids….what a disgrace) and drift down to IH 35 and catch a ride back home. Those were some halcyon days. I miss San Marcos, and I miss the ol Aquarena Springs. Looks like the college is treating it well now though. I will miss Glurpo and Missy. And all the ladies who dove for the shows. Sincerely, TJW

  11. Mindy Fuller Says:

    I will always be mermaid in my heart. I had the absolute pleasure and honor of being a mermaid while I attended the University in the early 1990’s, one of the last, as shortly after I graduated and left, the mermaid show was closed down. Such a shame. The show brought joy to so many little children. It makes me smile to think of all the vacation scrap books I’m in. Years later, while working at a children’s theatre I was actually recognized by a young lady. She returned to another show and brought with her the picture she had, a framed copy of a photo of her and I when she was much younger. Knowing that something I was a part of brought so much happiness is very fulfilling. What I would give to dive into that chilly water and swim out of the clam to have an Indian pic-nic underwater with the fishes and the duck feet getting tangled in my hair. Such fond memories of a time gone by. ~Mindy

  12. Theresa Says:

    I thought those women were divinities. I saw it in 1968, at 10 years of age. Anyone remember the piano-playing chicken?

  13. Cyril Hinds Says:

    Thanks so much for this article. I’m 63 and still have vivid memories of visiting this water park for one day back in the late 50’s. Many, many thanks to everyone who worked there, you made this kid’s day!

  14. Bob Phillips Says:

    Thanks for the great article Hunter. I worked at Aquarena from 1962 through 1972 and produced the Aquarena documentary, It was a magical place and good to see other folks agree.

  15. Jennifer Benton Says:

    I worked as the Public Relations Director at Aquarena from 1973 until 1978. I have so many wonderful memories of the attraction and the many people I had the privilege to work with. Gene Phillips was the best boss. I was right out of college, and he believed in me and my potential.

  16. Ann Martin Says:

    Have you seen these videos of Aquarena Springs:

  17. Hunter Says:

    Thanks all for the great comments, and for the links to the documentary and home-movie footage: The first clip on the texasarchive (above link) shows much of the show from the mermaid theater. Cheers!

  18. JohnG Says:

    I worked there the mid-late 80’s while in highschool. Drove the boats, swam in the show, lots of fun.

  19. Bea Contreras Says:

    Those were the wonderful years. My aunt Mary Ortiz was the supervisor at the Gift Shop for many years. My sister Rachel was the supervisor at the Spring House in 1969. I met my husband Jesse Contreras working at Aquarena. He worked at the glass bottom boats and I worked at the Spring House in 1968.
    I also worked under Bertie Ware and after she retired I became the Accounting Manager under Jay Moore.
    Jesse and I were married on May 9 1970 while he was the supervisor for the glass bottom boats.
    On May 16, 1970 was the Great Flood od San Marcos.
    My Father-In-Law Joe Contreras was the Janitor at Aquarena. On that day of the flood he got stuck in the janitor’s closet. If it had not been for Scott McGehee my father in law would have drowned. Scoot McGehee and other employees were forced to go to the roof of the building, that’s when Scott relized that my father in law was still in the building.
    My father in law retired from Aquarena after working 30 years.
    We have great memories. My last day of employment was summer of 1987.

  20. Helen Ginger Says:

    I swam during the mid-70s. By that time, the girls were called mermaids and we wore the tail during picnic. It was a good job — helped me pay tuition for two years of Bachelor’s and then Master’s. I enjoyed my years swimming. Wish I’d been able to keep up with some of the other mermaids from my time there.

  21. Doni Weber Says:

    Hi, Hunter

    No, not the one with the banana. The one on the right if you click on #7 in the photo catalog–picture taken in the 1950s. She is Shirley Rogers (daughter of Paul, granddaughter of A.B.). The Aquamaid on the left is Margaret Russell. Mom swam in the early 50s. She was a student at (then) Texas State Teachers College, and they would come get her out of class to do a show if needed.

  22. Nicole Laas Says:

    Hey!! That is my aunt Janice on the first shown postcard!! She was so beautiful. <3

  23. Hunter Says:

    Thanks for the update Doni! I’ll get their info into the caption.

  24. Phil Says:

    I have 3 postcards of these, they all say Florida. So I guess they may have been issued with that to sell the postcards in Florida.

  25. Vintage Moon Lei Says:

    Dang! I’ve never been and it made me cry. Almost! Sounds like a fun place though. Funny as it seems, I think I know now where Astroworld themepark in Houston got its ideas from. They too had the Aquarena. Mermaids it had none, but replaced with amazing ski shows by professionals doing tricks and stunts. In another area featured theme park rides and some of these were a yellow submarine with glass bottoms and windows to view from. I don’t remember what all you could see on that ride. I was really little probably 7-9yrs old. The theme park also embraced the needle and the sky rides, but never any trained pigs, chickens or other animals. Rollercoasters, games, train, gift shop, kiddie park, petting zoo etc were there as well, but after seeing the different videos on here and youtube, im convinced Astroworld mimicked part of Aquarena.
    I’m going to ask a friend of mine who grew up in San Marcos and most likely has visited Aquarena of San Marcos. I bet she has fond memories and maybe a story or two.
    Thank you for sharing! Now when I go traveling thst way, I will be sure to stop at more side road junk sales to see if I get lucky enough to find an old memoire from there. I love to hear stories of old places. :-)

  26. Theresa Dunsterville (Terri) Says:

    What a fantastic article!! I especially liked reading about the early days. I worked full time as a backstage “mom,” trainer, and performer (Aquamaid) from Spring 1984 to Spring 1989. Went back once, years after the show closed. Spring Lake was still beautiful, and I’m glad the springs are being taken care of, but it was like a friend had died. It gave me nightmares. I’m lucky that my parents took a video of the whole show and I was able to put it on DVD. I made copies for family so it still can come alive for us. I hope to get it on my FB page. Thanks again for more wonderful memories.

  27. Mary Jane (Ewing) Farmer Says:

    This was a great article. I, too, swam at the Aquarena, in the late 1950s. My dad, Bush Ewing, managed the glass bottom boats; my mom, Mary Elois Ewing, sewed the decorations onto the swim suits; my brothers, Andy and Buddy Ewing, worked at the restaurant and Buddy was even a ‘bumper-sticker’ boy who helped train a “Ralph the pig.” But, we had been raised so near the river we were used to the constant 72-degree water, and none of us ever experienced the chill mentioned here. In fact, it was great when the snow fell and we could see the flakes hitting the water surface from underneath. One of the happiest times in my life, never since replicated, were at the Aquarena and the San Marcos River.

  28. Marilyn Latting Says:

    What a great non-fiction tale to have shared with so many of us with memories of Aquarena. My children were quite young when we went as a family. I’m not sure which of us had more fun, but I do remember I had fears that the kids would fall in the water. Hunter, this was a great subject for you to have written the story. Keep up the great work. I’m delighted to read this piece of history that is close to so many of us.

  29. Hunter Says:

    Thanks Marilyn! It’s been amazing to see all the different folks connected to Aquarena finding this article and leaving their comments. Such a treasured place. :)

  30. Sarah Sparks Lloyd Says:

    Today I found the article you wrote about Aquarena, which included great photos and interviews of my mother, Peggy Jean Sparks and others. I spoke to my mother today about this and she remembered speaking with you. You really made her day when you interviewed her, and I am sure she will be very pleased to see this. I will show her the next time I visit her… next week at her 84th birthday! Incidentally, she got an art diploma from the University of Texas school of Fine arts and has done numerous, valuable art conservation works (Ming Dynasty, 1200s, others) and her own artwork. She still is working at 84 and has tons of passion and stories to tell, so feel free to contact her again. She never forgets anyone. Sincerely, Sarah (the youngest daughter in Houston)

  31. Jodi (Julie's twin) Says:

    My twin sister, Julie, swam as a mermaid in the ’80’s. They swam all year round and helped feed the baby pigs.

  32. Colleen Says:

    I was fortunate enough to go to Aquarena Springs back in 1982. What wonderful memories I have of that day. Sad that it is gone.

  33. Nicole laas Says:

    That picture of the mermaid is my aunt Janice! Janice Faye Laas. She was amazing :

  34. July Says:

    I am trying to locate former mermaids that performed at Aquarena Springs. San Marcos will now be home to a new citywide celebration titled, “Mermaid Week SMTX.” This is slated for September 2016. We are searching for any former performers to be a part of the Royal Court. You may contact me at

  35. Pam Gill-Kimrey Says:

    I worked as a aquamaid from 1969-1974. I live in San Marcos and have a dear friend that was also a aquamaid that lives in Buda and teaches at Texas State. We are both interested in learning more about Mermaid Week.

  36. Cari Chadwick Deal Says:

    Thanks for the memories! I was a mermaid in the 90’s and my husband was Glass Bottom Boat Guide. In fact, that’s how we met. He saw me walking the grounds, heard I was a mermaid, and quickly switched jobs. On his very first day, he was assigned to give me my oxygen. During the ballet sequence when he was supposed to hand me the hose, he got busy looking at at a fresh water prawn and forgot. I had to swim over to him and grab it and started hyperventilating a bit. But I finished the sequence and we met up on the first stage of the volcano. He apologized repeatedly and introduced himself. I told him it was ok, it was his first day on the job, and that my name was Cari. That was nearly 30 years ago and he . . . Wait for it . . . Still takes my breath away!! ? When I left there someone told me I’d always have dreams of that place. And I still do. Doing my mermaid thing in the tranquil waters of the underwater theater area, where there was no concept of time. Just peace and quiet, amazed by the other life we lost ourselves in when exploring that arena and its inhabitants. Best job ever for the both of us. Where else can you get paid to get a tan in between shows. Thank you so much for sharing. We just celebrated 22 years together on June 4th. The same day our 18 year old graduated from High School! ?

  37. david viejo perez Says:

    Nice article!painting a mermaid mural on Texas state dedicating it to Shirley boss at accent lighting.should be done mid July 2016,agriculture water collection tank.

  38. Peggi Stewart Says:

    Be still my heart! I am thrilled to learn about the Mermaid Festival 2016. I was saddened to learn that the park closed, but relieved my alma mater was involved with conserving it in a responsible way. Working here made my college experience extremely special. I’ve made lifetime friendships that I cherish 35+ years later. I created a FB in an effort to reunite mermaid alumni from tears past. I’d love to get involved with the efforts! Thank you for providing this forum!

  39. Judie Says:

    I love this article. I worked as a mermaid from 1985-1988 and it is still one of my fondest memories and still my favorite job. It never fails to bring a smile to someone’s face when you tell them you were once a mermaid.

  40. Robbie Walker Says:

    I was one of the aquamaids from 1961 to 1963 while I was a student at SWT.

  41. Eve Neibel Says:

    I was a mermaid in 1976 and some of 1977. I completely forgotten about my experiences of being a mermaid. I don’t why because it was so cool! I lived by the tennis courts and would walk to work and take the sky tram over. The nice lady who taught me was named Jenny Riley,I do believe so.

  42. Dale Waun Says:

    The top picture is Janice Laas AKA Janice Everett Waun

  43. Betsey Smith Says:

    Does anyone remember a restaurant in San Marcos during the 50’s that had a jukebox and when you played a song there was up on the wall in a glass enclosure a small band I think they were monkeys with instruments and they played along with the music As a kid I loved to watch that and always asked my dad to play another song if it wasn’t San Marcos it could have been New Braunfuls

  44. Tom Roach Says:

    Great article Thanks for doing this. I have been diving at this park for years. I also collect old San Marcos post cards if you have any please let me know. Tom Roach contact me at
    Thanks for doing this

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