Clearwater Marine Aquarium brings $2 billion impact, study says

Associate sea turtle biologist Brittany Workman listens to the heartbeat of a cold-stunned green sea turtle last month.
Associate sea turtle biologist Brittany Workman listens to the heartbeat of a cold-stunned green sea turtle last month.
Published Feb. 13, 2016

CLEARWATER — The Clearwater Marine Aquarium had a $2 billion regional impact over the past four years and continues to grow even after the initial boom from the Hollywood film that made it famous, according to a study released Friday.

Aquarium visitors generated nearly 2.2 million hotel room nights in Pinellas County in 2012 through 2015, with 44,444 jobs supported over that time, according to the study conducted by Tourism Economics, a company that analyzes economic impacts.

The report comes as the aquarium begins a $45 million renovation project that includes a three-story, 437-space parking garage; a two-story dolphin pool; and two four-story towers that will house animal life-support systems, a food court, coral reef exhibits, lab rooms, a theater and other amenities. The current facility has no room to accept any new dolphins in need of rehabilitation until more pools are built.

"All of this adds up to global promotion of our mission of marine life rescue, education and inspiration," CEO David Yates said in a news release.

Before Winter, the CMA's dolphin with a prosthetic tail, hit the big screen, aquarium attendance averaged just 163,000 in 2009 and 2010. But after the release of Dolphin Tale in 2011, the aquarium saw life-changing popularity.

Visitation increased by 90 percent in 2011 to 312,000. After the CMA launched its Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure exhibit in 2012, attendance more than doubled to 706,000 visits.

Dolphin Tale 2, released in September 2014, brought another surge of popularity, with visitation last year reaching 800,000, according to the study.

The study found nearly half of all patrons between 2011 and 2014 came from outside of Florida, and most of the state residents came from beyond Pinellas County.

Yates said the Tourism Economics report also validates a 2012 predictive study conducted by USF St. Petersburg's College of Business, which estimated the Dolphin Tale movie alone would have a half-billion-dollar impact in 2013 and nearly $2 billion by 2016.

Sean Snaith, director of the Institute for Economic Competitiveness at University of Central Florida, said a roughly half-billion-dollar impact per year for a facility like CMA is plausible, and such economic impact studies can help gauge how certain activities affect local economies.

"You can't perfectly trace every dollar that circulates and ripples through the economy, so these impact studies are a way to sort of estimate that process," Snaith said.

However, along with the economic benefits from its success, the aquarium has also had to balance concerns from neighbors in Island Estates, the residential community where CMA has been since 1972.

Residents have appealed the Community Development Board's January approval of the aquarium's expansion plan, saying it would worsen traffic congestion and lower home values.

But Yates has said this expansion, with the parking garage that will eliminate three temporary lots spread between Island Estates and downtown, will only alleviate traffic issues.

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Contact Tracey McManus at or (727) 445-4151. Follow @TroMcManus.