By Jennifer Audette
If you’re 6 years old, it doesn’t get much better than dressing and swimming like a mermaid.
Several times a day, young visitors to Orlando get that opportunity, thanks to the new Mermaid Academy.
At 12 well-known hotel pools in the area, instructors will spend one hour each session allowing young girls and boys to experience life with a tail.
During the class, participants practice swimming with a monofin, which is more challenging than it looks. Some pick up the “dolphin kick” right away, others take more practice.
Girls in the class then cover their monofin with a choice of several shiny and colorful mermaid “skirts.” Think shimmering greens and iridescent oranges. Boys in the class can add a shark fin.
Once they are comfortable with swimming with a tail, the mermaids and sharks can swim through hula hoops and dive for buried treasures. About 15 minutes at the end of class allows for free swim time and photos.
Each class has two in-water instructors and generally no more than 12 participants.
The class fee depends upon the hotel where it is being offered, but the typical range is $20 to $30.
Most of the instructors are both CPR- and lifeguard-certified, and all have been background screened for working with children.
The Mermaid Academy is the entrepreneurial brainchild of Joe O’Rourke, who lived in Flower Mound, Texas, at the time and was spending a lot of time away from home as a sales representative.
“My daughter, like any other little girl, wants to be a princess, wants to be Ariel,” O’Rourke said of his 8-year-old daughter. “She would drive us crazy with wanting a mermaid tail.”
He and his wife finally found one for a reasonable price and brought it with them on a recent trip to Florida.
“We were fielding nonstop questions (from other guests),” O’Rourke said.
He joked with one guest that she could have a mermaid tail for the made-up price of $150, and without blinking, she said, “OK, give me two.”
That got him thinking. What if little girls like his could pay (or have their parents pay) to be a mermaid while on vacation?
He moved his family to Central Florida in early 2013, and The Mermaid Academy was born.
By the beginning of the summer, eight hotels already were offering mermaid classes. By the middle of the summer, four more had signed on. O’Rourke now has more than a dozen employees. The instructors are the most important facet of the classes, providing gentle encouragement and lots of entertainment.
“These kids want to be like our instructors,” he said. “They like to think, ‘This is a real mermaid teaching me.’”
Raynah’s mom, traveling from Sarasota to spend a long weekend with her family in Orlando, watched with awe at the class.
“She just loves mermaids.”
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