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Clearwater aquarium wants 'Dolphin Tale' exhibit ready by Thanksgiving

CLEARWATER — The cool-blue shrine to Winter the dolphin is lit by rows of track lights. The halls and theaters bear the look of gleaming sun rays, reflected in the deep. From the ceiling hangs a replica whale skeleton; below, there is a cluster of prop crab traps.

For most, the Dolphin Tale spotlight has come and gone. Here, it never left.

Construction is under way at Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's new prop and movie set exhibit being built in the downtown Harborview Center.

Here, in a defunct convention center and old SteinMart department store, aquarium leaders hope to expand their space and revenue in the wake of the film's debut.

Though the exhibit is named after Winter, made famous when she learned to swim with a prosthetic tail, the dolphin will remain at the aquarium on Island Estates. The Harborview exhibit will instead feature movie sets, displayed props, and theaters for showing behind-the-scenes footage, at a cost of about $500,000.

"You're immediately baptized into the movie set," said David Yates, the aquarium's CEO, as he walked last week past the empty gift shop into the expansive center hall. "We kept the nuts, the bolts, the screws, you name it."

Work crews, Yates said, have been rushing to finish the exhibit in time for an opening by Thanksgiving, though much remains to be done. Film stills and computer-generated footage to be used for decoration are in limbo between Warner Brothers and the exhibit; most of the other props await placement in a Harborview back room.

Interestingly enough, many of these props have been here before, when film crews a year ago built a kitchen, bedroom, garage and back yard at the Harborview for use in filming the movie. Those sets, ringed by AstroTurf, will be reconstructed; one worker this week installed a refrigerator.

Once opened, the exhibit and the aquarium two miles away will work in tandem, linked by a looping Jolley Trolley shuttle. Admission to the exhibit will cost $10 for kids, $11 for seniors and $12 for adults. The cost of a two-site bundle has yet to be announced.

Since Dolphin Tale's premiere in September, box-office revenue has doubled the film's budget, earning $69 million nationwide and $13 million from international theaters in countries like Russia, Hungary and France. Its gross ranks sixth all-time in the subgenre of family live-action animal films: behind Free Willy and March of the Penguins, ahead of Beethoven and My Dog Skip.

That popularity seems to have rippled back into the aquarium, where Yates said attendance is nearly five times higher than last year. Internet sales have also exploded: In October, the aquarium sold $150,000 worth of Winter merchandise, 30 times more than a typical month.

Though the exhibit could be lucrative for the not-for-profit aquarium, it will pay only $1 in annual rent for 55,000 square feet of city-owned real estate in the Harborview Center.

Aquarium leaders haggled with the city for weeks in August, arguing that the exhibit could help jump-start Clearwater's sputtering downtown. The City Council agreed in September that the aquarium would only need to repay the city for about $100,000 in Harborview repairs.

Mostly out of theaters now, Winter's story is headed to DVD in time for the Christmas shopping season. But Yates, ever the promoter, said the dolphin's fame has yet to hit its peak.

"This is a global enterprise now," Yates said. "We can genuinely compete with Mickey Mouse."

Contact Drew Harwell at (727) 445-4170 or dharwell@sptimes.com.

Clearwater aquarium wants 'Dolphin Tale' exhibit ready by Thanksgiving 11/12/11 [Last modified: Saturday, November 12, 2011 2:53pm]
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