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,
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 Yet other amenities remain outdated.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
(Editing by Andrew Hay)
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