Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
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Winter wonderland all year long


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Those of us old enough to remember the TV series “Flipper” forever formed an affinity for the acrobatic actor. And now a new generation of admirers is bonding with yet another dolphin, this one named Winter.

While the Miami Seaquarium played on Flipper’s fame for decades, the newest saltwater star calls Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) home. In case you’ve been visiting Mars the past few years, Winter took center stage — or rather, center tank — in a 2011 hit family movie called “Dolphin Tale.” A-listers Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd shared the top billing with Winter, and “Dolphin Tale 2” hits the big screens on Sept. 12 with the same cast.

The essence of “Dolphin Tale” involves Winter losing her tail flukes as a result of entanglement in a commercial crab trap line. She nearly dies, and developers want to bulldoze the aquarium, but the happy ending results in Winter receiving a prosthetic tail and saving the aquarium.

The irony is the multiple threads of truth to the fictionalized story. The movie’s international exposure energized the ho-hum CMA like a blood transfusion.

“Before ‘Dolphin Tale,’ our yearly attendance averaged 180,000 to 200,000,” said Michael Atwell of CMA’s Marketing and Public Relations Department. “Since then, it’s jumped to 750,000.”

Holy blowhole, Batman, the man-made replacement for Winter’s missing tail propelled the disabled dolphin into a million-dollar mammal. The movie’s momentum unquestionably served as the catalyst for Pinellas County voters last November approving a hotly contested “new home for Winter” campaign. Now, CMA is attempting to raise up to $160 million by August 2016. That should provide sufficient capital to replace the dilapidated Clearwater City Hall with a modern three-story aquarium featuring such niceties as a dolphin stadium, high-tech theater and coral reef display.

The quid pro quo is that CMA will toss in up to $7.5 million to help finance a new city hall as well as write $250,000 checks annually to the city. Those opposed to building the aquarium on prime city-owned waterfront property vow to continue fighting it, but that’s an unlikely scenario.

At present, CMA is split into two locations: the original aquarium and marine animal hospital on Island Estates off Clearwater Memorial Causeway; and a glitzy Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure museum located next to the downtown Clearwater main library. The latter is essentially a giant tribute to Winter’s heartwarming cinematic story.

A recent visit to both sites with the wife and two grandkids turned out to be an enjoyable experience for us all. Besides Winter and two other dolphins, Hope (who makes her debut in “Dolphin Tale 2”) and Nicholas (who appears in both films), the Island Estates location offers a chance to pet stingrays, observe animal care and see the two African great white pelicans that played Rufus in “Dolphin Tale.” Other attractions include tanks large and small with a moray eel, nurse sharks, other fish, otters and sea turtles; interactive games; trainer presentations; plus an extensive shell collection.

Besides movie props, costumes and sets at Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, visitors will find a touch tank with sea urchins, crabs and sea snails, plus a walk-through simulation of a category one hurricane.

Did CMA forget to include gift shops at both locations? You know the answer to that.

Thanks to Flipper and Winter, visitors of all ages keep alive the fascination and connection to dolphins and the marine world. CMA is located at 249 Windward Passage. Call (727) 441-1790 for details. Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure is at 300 Cleveland St. Call (727) 724-4115. For more information on both sites, visit www.seewinter.com.

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