Clearwater – Movie stars usually don’t invite everyday people to their homes. But there’s one living in Clearwater who enjoys plenty of company. She’s even adding on to the place to accommodate more visitors.
Winter the dolphin is the celebrity resident of Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and its most incredible rescue and rehabilitation story. She plays herself in Dolphin Tale, stealing scenes from co-stars Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd, in a film based on her experiences. The 3-D family flick opened in 2011 worldwide.
Extraordinary buzz is building around Hollywood for Dolphin Tale, filmed in Pinellas county, chiefly at the aquarium Winter calls home. Produced by Alcon Entertainment, the studio that made a blockbuster of The Blind Side, Dolphin Tale was a box office success.
More people than ever have been visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium to meet Winter. The facility’s CEO David Yates predicts “the largest tourism onslaught this area has ever seen.” His not-for-profit attraction greeted nearly 700,000 guests last year, Clearwater’s best draw that isn’t a beach.
To handle the expected surge, the aquarium began an ambitious $12 million expansion, including a new 1.4-million-gallon dolphin pool, with stadium seating for spectators.
“We’ve been discussing expansion for several years,” Yates said in a telephone interview. “The movie stepped up the calendar quite a bit.”
What would normally be a two-year project was accelerated to “probably eight or nine months,” according to Yates. The aquarium didn’t close its doors during construction, which is mostly external of the present facility and was done in two phases: first, an enhanced animal care center, then the dolphin stadium and a dynamic new entranceway.
There is no doubt that this is The House That Winter Built, and Dolphin Tale delivered.
The renovated lobby area features Dolphin Tale props, photos and behind-the-scenes video reels. A kitschy houseboat built for Connick’s character remains in the aquarium’s bayou, ready for viewing.
“We’re going to wrap Dolphin Tale around everything we do,” said Yates, who is also one of the film’s producers. “The movie is about our mission; there’s no disconnect between it and who we are. People will come because they saw the movie, so we have to give them a Dolphin Tale type of experience.”
Winter’s story was made for the movies. Rescued as a calf from a crab trap in 2005, her tail required amputation. Fitted with a revolutionary prosthetic, Winter thrives, while inspiring and delighting all who encounter her. Dolphin Tale used those facts to shape a fictional plot involving single parents (Connick, Judd), their children and a doctor (Freeman) inventing Winter’s new tail.
According to Yates, both the aquarium and souvenir-seeking visitors reap the benefits of licensed Dolphin Tale products, including Winter plush toys and figurines, two movie novelizations, commemorative T-shirts and pajamas.
If You Go
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
249 Windward Passage, Clearwater
Open for visitors Mondays through Thurdays, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays, 9 a.m.-7 p.m.; Sundays, 10 a.m.-5p.m. Admission is $14.95 for adults; $10.95 for seniors 60-plus; and $9.95 for children ages three to 12.
To read the St. Petersburg Times story on Winter that started it all, click here.
You can also read more about how others have helped and continue to help rescue animals like Winter, and how you can get involved.
Steve Persall is the St. Petersburg Times movie critic. He lives in Clearwater.