'Dolphin Tale' hero's new home tangled in aquarium politics

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[September 15, 2014]  By Letitia Stein

CLEARWATER Fla. (Reuters) - The family-friendly hit "Dolphin Tale," whose sequel opened in theaters this weekend, tells the true story of a dolphin who learns to swim without a tail. The movie ends with Winter, the tail-less dolphin, helping save the struggling Florida aquarium that rescued her. In real-life, the story has not yet wrapped up so neatly.

Even Hollywood fame could not provide Winter a pass on aquarium politics at a time when live marine animal exhibitions are facing intense public scrutiny.

An ambitious proposal to build Winter a new waterfront home was scaled back recently amid concern about expenses and the potential for staged performances like those under fire at SeaWorld's theme parks.

"Winter can't do those kind of shows, even if we wanted to, which we donít," said David Yates, chief executive officer at her home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. "We have never been about big shows. That was a misperception."

Winter's latest dilemma started when crowds of camera-toting tourists showed up to meet the chirping star of the 2011 hit, featuring Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.

"Dolphin Tale" and its sequel, "Dolphin Tale 2," were filmed at the Clearwater aquarium, a sun-bleached former sewage treatment plant retrofitted as a marine animal hospital.

Attendance at the west central Florida attraction soared after the release of the movie, from about 100,000 visitors in typical years prior to 750,000 since.

"We are just wildly overcrowded," Yates said, adding that one-third of the visitors are children with disabilities, or families drawn to Winter's story after their own hardships.

The chance to watch Winter maneuver her amputated tail and exercise with a novel prosthetic tail lured the Main family of Galesburg, Illinois, in planning a Florida vacation.

"We both lost our moms, and we both went through something in our lives but didn't give up," Destany Main, 17, said during a visit this week, slurping snowcones with her cousin, Macy Main, 8.

The attendance surge helped expand a turtle ICU and build a dolphin rehabilitation deck at the aquarium, which did not share in the proceeds from the movie that grossed $72.3 million at domestic box offices. Yet other amenities remain outdated.

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There is no permanent ticket center by a makeshift food court, and it's hard to maneuver wheelchairs through narrow hallways to view the dolphins underwater.

Winter's emotional pull could not silence local skepticism over an expansion initially projected to cost $160 million.

Incidents at other attractions in which trainers have been injured or even killed are raising questions internationally about staged marine animal performances, which critics say are stressful for sea mammals and often take place in enclosures that are too small.

Locally, competition for visitors was another concern about the expansion, with the Florida Aquarium's larger facilities only 45 minutes away in Tampa.

Winter's keepers last month responded with revised plans calling for a $68 million aquarium. Gone are the proposals for stadium bleachers that raised questions about staged animal performances.

As fundraising ramps up around the sequel's release, the aquarium now has Hope, another rescued dolphin who co-stars as Winter's companion in "Dolphin Tale 2," which highlights the aquarium's motto of "Rescue, Rehab, Release."

"From a fundraising perspective," Yates said, "itís spot on about our mission."

(Editing by Andrew Hay)

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