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Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit opens at Clearwater's Harborview Center

CLEARWATER — Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium's new movie exhibit, opened for business Wednesday, capping a four-month rush to cash in on the star dolphin's global film cachet.

Filling the second floor of the city-owned Harborview Center, a defunct convention hall on the downtown waterfront, the movie prop and set tour will serve as a shrine to Dolphin Tale, Hollywood's take on Winter, the aquarium's tailless dolphin.

This second site for the aquarium is a re-creation of a film that re-created the aquarium, and is a monument to the film's little details. Exhibits in the 55,000-square-foot hall showcase the movie's props, such as a prosthetic tail; sets, including the houseboat crow's nest; and scenes ("Kyle's Pool Party") that fans have only seen onscreen.

As for Winter, the star, she will continue to swim at the aquarium's main site 2 miles to the west on Island Estates. An open-air Jolley Trolley will shuttle visitors between locations for free.

Admission to the new exhibit costs $12 for adults, $11 for seniors and $10 for children, with bundle deals available for those wanting to visit both locations. Aquarium CEO David Yates' "wild estimate" is that the exhibit could see 200,000 visitors a year, compared to the aquarium's 500,000.

Yates estimated the exhibit would cost the not-for-profit aquarium about $500,000 to create and $1 in yearly rent. Negotiations with the city, which were sometimes tense, ended earlier this year with the aquarium agreeing to pay for about $100,000 in repairs on the aging Harborview.

Though the city had long sought to demolish the Harborview, even paying its last tenant $600,000 to leave, leaders agreed to support the new exhibit on the premise it could spark downtown revitalization.

The film premiered in September and has since left theaters, but Yates predicts the film's attractiveness for tourists will last for years. The movie arrives on DVD next week. Yates is planning a large advertising push, part of the film's "global media campaign," for next spring that could attempt to siphon visitors from tourist hot spots like Orlando.

"People could come here forever," he said.

Starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, the film has grossed more than double its budget: $87 million, including $16 million in foreign theaters. Movie posters in the Harborview exhibit's lobby come from Israel, Hungary, Russia and Germany, where the film is called Mein Freund, der Delfin. But since those proceeds will stay in Hollywood, including with production company Alcon Entertainment, the exhibit also serves as a fundraiser for the aquarium's expansion. One mural exhorts guests to "help build Winter's new home."

After Wednesday morning's ribbon-cutting, Dan Strzempka, an amputee and prosthetist who helped design Winter's tail, surveyed the exhibit's prop workbench from the movie. In the film he is played by Morgan Freeman.

"They didn't do it very corny," Strzempka said of the exhibit. "They did it up real nice."

Children also seemed to take to the exhibit's theater and games, including a "Pin the Tail on the Dolphin" prop taken from the film's "Save Winter Day."

"It's, like, different from everything else," said Megan Bosi, 10, still in her school uniform after playing hooky from St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School. She turned to her father, Dennis, while her brother, Dennis Jr., surveyed the gift shop.

"The (prop) fridge looks better than our house's," Megan said. "Think they'll know if we switch?"

The first tickets of the day were sold at 12:30 p.m. to Leigha Frantzen, 12, and her grandmother and home-school teacher, Dawn.

They visited the aquarium a few months ago and heard news of the exhibit opening Wednesday morning. But they stuck out from the other guests in an interesting way.

Said Leigha: "We haven't seen the movie yet."

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

Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit opens at Clearwater's Harborview Center 12/14/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 14, 2011 7:56pm]
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