Filming has wrapped at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and Wednesday morning it reopened to the public.
The crews that have been shooting the movie Dolphin Tale have packed up their cameras. The movie's stars — Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. — have left town.
Guests at the aquarium will see a few new features:
• An 80,000-gallon pool movie producers built for filming. It's the new home of Winter the dolphin, the aquarium's most famous resident and a star of the upcoming film.
• A funky, Old Florida-style houseboat that was also made for the movie, with a crow's nest on top. In the film, Connick's character lives on the boat. The public will be able to go aboard once handicapped-accessible ramps are built.
• Various props and sets from the film.
• Windows for underwater dolphin viewing in a hallway that's elaborately decorated to look like an undersea shipwreck.
The 58-day movie shoot went well, said aquarium CEO David Yates.
"Directors will tell you they don't want variables like kids, animals and water. We had kids and animals in water," he said Tuesday. "But all of the things that could have gone wrong did not."
Winter became famous when she lost her tail in a crab trap and scientists gave her a prosthetic tail. Dolphin Tale tweaks the true story of Winter's rehabilitation into a story of friendship between the dolphin and an introverted boy. It's being produced by Alcon Entertainment, which has done films such as Oscar winner The Blind Side.
Expect a big marketing campaign for the movie, which is tentatively scheduled for release next October. The aquarium expects attendance to go way up once the film comes out, creating a ripple effect for local tourism.
"This is not a small movie," Yates said as Winter swam in her pool behind him. "It's a major motion picture, a family movie, and Clearwater is a family tourism destination."
On Tuesday, construction crews were scrambling to finish their work before Wednesday's opening. Aquarium spokeswoman Krista Rosado said they were putting back the original metal railings around the dolphin pools, replacing rope railings used in the movie. "We're also putting the gift shop back together," she said, because the lobby was used to store movie cameras and buffets for the crew.
Soon the aquarium will begin a fundraising drive to pay for improvements to prepare for the coming crowds — starting with a new parking lot on vacant land just east of the building. Some visitors will see a newly rescued baby dolphin, in quarantine.
The expansion plans include a three-story parking garage, for which the aquarium will have to get permits. Said Yates, "We have to move very quickly to make more room for cars, people and animals."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4160.