Winter the tailless dolphin, star of a major Hollywood film, is now being touted as a tourism draw that is doing the same thing for Pinellas County that Lord of the Rings did for New Zealand's tourism industry.
The local economic impact of the movie Dolphin Tale will total more than a half-billion dollars next year and could triple by 2016, according to a study released Thursday by USF St. Petersburg's College of Business.
The popular film has dramatically increased the number of out-of-state visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter's real-life story about getting a prosthetic tail has played out. The effects have been spread around the local economy, boosting business for hotels, restaurants, gas stations and the like, the study found.
David Yates, the aquarium's CEO, said the movie draws visitors to Winter's home because the film is so closely tied to a real location. The name "Clearwater" is mentioned or shown several times in the movie.
One might assume that tourism generated by the film would begin to drop off after the movie left theaters. But Yates and the movie's producers said Dolphin Tale will have a long "afterlife" in DVDs, on HBO, and later on the ABC Family network, ensuring that viewers will have many chances to be exposed to Winter's story.
"This is an ongoing promotion for the area," said movie producer Andrew Kosove. "It will drive tourism into the area for a number of years to come."
Average attendance at the aquarium has roughly quadrupled since Dolphin Tale's release last September, Yates said.
The marine mammal hospital and tourist attraction expects to get 750,000 visitors this year, 400,000 of them from out of state. And about 70 percent of those out-of-staters are coming to Clearwater because of Dolphin Tale, according to the aquarium's in-house surveys.
USF St. Petersburg decided to study the film's local economic impact at the suggestion of an aquarium board member.
"That's part of what we do," said Maling Ebrahimpour, dean of USFSP's College of Business. "We work with businesses."
The study found that the film generated jobs in 2010 during 55 days of production and continuing after it became one of the most popular movies in the country.
The dean, a business professor and two students analyzed data to forecast the future number of visitors to the aquarium.
They studied "film-induced tourism," an increase in visitors that comes with films that are associated with an identifiable location to which people can travel. It's often cited that the Lord of the Rings trilogy boosted tourism by 40 percent in the entire country of New Zealand.
USFSP reviewed tourism statistics from locations associated with movies like Braveheart, the Harry Potter series, The Beach, Field of Dreams and Mission Impossible.
The USFSP study was unveiled Thursday at a presentation in the aquarium's theater for a crowd of local public officials, Florida film officials and people affiliated with the aquarium.
They heard testimonials from the Sandpearl resort, the Jolley Trolley transit line and Tony's Pizzeria in downtown Clearwater about how the aquarium and its spinoff attraction in downtown's Harborview Center, Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, have boosted their business.
Kosove, the Dolphin Tale producer who is co-CEO of Alcon Entertainment, said the $42 million movie would never have been made without $5 million in tax breaks from Florida.
He also said the $60 million marketing campaign for the 2011 movie helped counteract bad publicity that Florida's Gulf Coast unfairly received from the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Clearwater community also likely got a boost from a message that appears at the end of the movie as Dolphin Tale's credits roll, which reads:
Winter is happy and healthy and lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Florida. You can visit her there or online at seewinter.com.