CLEARWATER — Winter the dolphin couldn't swim past The Lion King, but closely stalked Brad Pitt after record-setting weekend box office estimates were released Sunday.
Dolphin Tale ranked third in its debut with an estimated $20.3 million in ticket sales, behind another strong performance by Disney's 3-D reissue of The Lion King ($22.1 million), and trailing Pitt's baseball flick Moneyball by only $300,000.
The movie's release was accompanied by a dramatic upsurge in weekend attendance at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the home of Winter.
More than 1,300 people visited the aquarium Sunday, said chief operating officer Frank Dame. On the same day in 2009, he said about 300 people visited. Officials couldn't compare it with last year's number because the aquarium was closed then for filming of the movie.
Ticket sales were even more impressive Saturday, when officials said about 1,500 people stopped in, representing a sixfold jump over 2010.
"We certainly expected to see a flux of people come in," Dame said. "Dolphin Tale appears to be a successful movie."
Final box office results will be announced today, a more accurate tally since Sunday's numbers were estimated by studios before most North American theaters opened. It's possible that Dolphin Tale could overtake Moneyball, with sports fans distracted by NFL games, baseball playoff chases and a NASCAR race while families visit theaters.
The competition for second place highlighted a banner weekend for Hollywood. It was the first September weekend ever with three movies surpassing the $20 million mark.
The top 20 movies combined grossed $115 million, the largest September weekend total ever, according to BoxOfficeGuru.com.