CLEARWATER — Fame has not changed Winter the dolphin, the star of two Dolphin Tale movies.
“Her personality has remained the same,” said Abby Stone, senior marine mammal trainer and stranding coordinator at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where Winter lives. “She stands out as an interesting character. Very communicative. Very vocal.”
But is she a Hollywood diva?
“No,” Stone laughed. “Not at all.”
But Winter’s celebrity has changed the aquarium.
The first Dolphin Tale, based on Winter’s rescue, rehabilitation and acclimation to a prosthetic tail, was released 10 years ago on Sept. 23, 2011.
In 2010, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s attendance was under 200,000 guests per year, according to statistics provided to the Tampa Bay Times. In 2012, attendance grew to around 750,000, and it has remained above half a million every year since.
According to aquarium spokesperson Kelsy Long, that allowed the facility to afford an $80 million expansion. They went from 39,072 square feet of event space and 14,205 square feet of exhibit space to 196,537 square feet of event space and 62,284 of exhibit space. They also have 1.5 million gallons of water for marine life, three times what they had before the movie was released.
Clearwater’s tourism brand has grown, too, in large part due to Winter. She has become the Mickey Mouse of Pinellas County.
“The movie had a $2 billion impact from 2012 to 2015 on the tourism economy in Pinellas County,” Long said. “That’s visitors coming to the area to visit CMA and then staying in hotels, renting cars, going to restaurants. And that doesn’t include the impact since 2015.”
Pinellas County has been the backdrop for a number of major motion pictures over the last few decades, its film commissioner Tony Armer said, from Cocoon in 1985 to Zola in 2021.
He’ll let film critics decide the best of the bunch, but said when it comes to a production’s economic and public relations impact on the area, Dolphin Tale is the “pinnacle of success, not just for Pinellas County, but also all of Tampa Bay and maybe even Florida. It brought our area to the world through a family-friendly story. A lot of people know of Clearwater because of Winter.”
Winter is named for the season during which she was rescued.
A fisherman discovered the bleeding 2-month-old, 68-pound bottlenose dolphin tangled in a crab trap line in Mosquito Lagoon near Cape Canaveral on Dec. 10, 2005.
The only rescue facility in the state willing to take her was the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, located inside a former sewage plant at 249 Windward Passage.
The dolphin survived, but lost her tail. A prosthetic was made through trial and error over 18 months. Winter adapted and then thrived.
Dave Yates took over as aquarium chief executive weeks after Winter arrived and at a time when it was unclear if the facility could remain open. The roof was caving in and the operation was close to declaring bankruptcy.
But Yates, who was previously president of the company that owns the Ironman Triathlon competition, knew he had a star.
“I needed a good story to highlight CMA,” he said. “It doesn’t get any better than Winter, the baby dolphin who refused to give up.”
He pitched her story to national media.
“She became a sensation,” Yates said. “She made five Today Show appearances in three years. It went everywhere.”
Yates said he was pitching Winter’s story to movie producers throughout Hollywood when, in late 2006 or early 2007, Alcon Entertainment cold-called him.
“They said, ‘We want to do this,’” Yates said. “That began the long process of making a movie.”
Winter’s story was tweaked for the big screen: A young boy rather than a fisherman found the dolphin and then rallied the community to come to her aid. The two men who created Winter’s prosthesis were combined into one character.
Filming began in September 2010 throughout Pinellas County with the aquarium serving as the main backdrop. Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr. and Kris Kristofferson were cast. Charles Martin Smith of Air Bud fame directed. The script was penned by the team of Karen Janszen, who previously wrote Free Willy 2 and A Walk to Remember, and Noam Dromi.
Animatronic dolphins and CGI helped bring Winter to the big screen, but she also portrayed herself.
It took a year to prepare Winter for her closeup.
“They wanted to capture who she was,” Stone said. “They wanted to see her natural behavior.”
So, they needed to adjust Winter to the movie-making experience.
“The equipment they used was unreal,” Stone said. “It blew me away. We had to replicate those things and, very slowly, in a systematic way, introduce them to her.”
Filmmaking equipment was placed near the pool for “short periods,” Stone said. Winter would initially and hesitantly swim over to check out the additions to her environment. When she “became bored” with the equipment, more was added. “And that’s how we got her comfortable.”
The actors who shared screen time with Winter “essentially worked alongside of us,” Stone said, until the dolphin was comfortable around them.
One of the more difficult lessons to teach first-time actors is to not stare directly at the camera. Winter was no exception.
“She was just so interested in the guy operating the underwater camera,” Stone said. “She would rest on his shoulder as he held this ginormous camera and put her eyeball right to the lens. We had to work hard, but we got her to not look at the camera.”
And when filming wrapped on Dec. 11, 2010, five years and one day after Winter was rescued, the sequel arrived.
That was the night a dolphin was discovered orphaned in the Indian River Lagoon. She was brought to the aquarium as the cast and crew were celebrating at the wrap party.
“The actors thought we were still filming,” Yates said.
The aquarium named the new dolphin Hope.
The next morning, as media arrived for a news conference on the new rescue, Times writer John Barry, whose 2008 series on Winter’s rescue was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, approached Yates with another name option.
“He suggested Sequel,” Yates said. “I told him that I am away ahead of him.”
Yates wrote the treatment for Dolphin Tale 2, about the search to find lonely Winter a companion.
The director and stars returned.
The aquarium had to reacclimate Winter to the production equipment, actors and filming process, plus help Hope to become comfortable with each.
Filming began and wrapped in late 2013 and the movie was released on Sept. 12, 2014.
“The advances to the aquarium because of the movies are unbelievable,” Stone said. “We had very humble beginnings. Now we have everything we ever dreamed about. Everything changed because of the movies.”
Winter’s cinematic tale might not be over.
Yates left the aquarium in 2019 to pursue film production.
“I have about 10 stories I am shepherding from story development to filming,” he said, one of which “is a Dolphin Tale spinoff. But that’s all I can say for now.”