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What you need to know about Winter and 'Dolphin Tale'

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 11:48 PM

With "Dolphin Tale" opening this weekend around the nation, we decided to share a few tidbits about the movie and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is home for the film's star, Winter the dolphin.

The following is gleaned from interviews with the people involved with the film and aquarium officials. And yes, we've been lucky enough to already see it. Your dolphin-loving kids should not be disappointed.

Pelican brief

Most of the animals in "Dolphin Tale" are Winter's fellow residents at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, but the scene-stealing, freeloading white pelican, Rufus, is played by a pair of trained pelicans named Lucy and Ricky. And for some scenes an animatronic puppet pelican was used.

Director Charles Martin Smith says he added the fowl character for comic relief and a little fantasy. "Those pelicans work for fish, and for the scene in which Rufus goes after Ashley Judd's purse, they practiced for two weeks with that purse full of fish," he says. "We never washed it, so the purse was ripe. The smell was hard on Ashley but the pelicans loved it."

Propped up

The first thing visitors to Clearwater Marine Aquarium need to know is that the facility is a cozy little animal rescue and rehab facility. It's not like SeaWorld or the Florida Aquarium. It's a slightly scruffy nonprofit marine life hospital housed in a former sewage-treatment plant.

The animals don't perform in shows. They are part of "demonstrations" to show animal behavior. Winter, the bottlenose dolphin that lost her tail to a crab trap, is the main attraction.

Visitors can watch as Winter's caretakers slip on an artificial tail three or four times a day as part of ongoing physical therapy. "She loves attention and thrives on crowds," says aquarium CEO David Yates.

Also housed there are sea otters, sea turtles, stingrays and some other dolphins such as 40-year-old deaf Panama and 10-year-old Nicholas.

In the wake of "Dolphin Tale," the aquarium is planning a $12.5 million expansion to handle the crowds. A new entrance/gift shop, parking lot and demonstration areas are coming along with more displays tied to the movie. The lobby seen in the film was actually on a movie set in a Largo warehouse.

Among the movie props currently on display is the biggest one – the houseboat home of Harry Connick Jr.'s character. It's actually unseaworthy and needs to be renovated before visitors can go aboard. Visitors can peer into Yates' poolside office, which hasn't been touched since it was set up as the office of Connick's character.

Other props include the fake makeshift water cameras used for months before the production began to get Winter used to being filmed; the "Clearwater Marine Hospital" sign; molded plastic sharks; and small items from the film.

Fact versus fiction

Fact: Winter plays herself in the film in scenes when you see a tailless dolphin. In other scenes, such as when the dolphin was beached, a fully articulated robotic dolphin was created and used as a stunt double.

Fiction: Most of the human characters are fictional, created to give the film an emotional hook. For example, Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, a troubled 11-year-old who befriends Winter and comes up with an idea about how to save her.

Fact: A fisherman found Winter on the Atlantic coast in December 2005. Character actor Richard Libertini plays the fisherman in the movie. A crab trap cut off circulation and Winter's tail was amputated. She is estimated to be nearly 6 years old.

Fiction: Morgan Freeman's character, an eccentric and irascible veteran's administration hospital doctor, is a composite of real doctors Kevin Carroll and Dan Strempka, of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics, a company that has developed prosthetic limbs for dogs, an ostrich and a duck. Strempka is an amputee who lost a leg when he was a child.

Fact: Winter has been fitted with 16 tails as she has grown. Carroll and Strempka also developed "WintersGel," which helps protect skin (human and animal) from irritating abrasions that might occur with artifical limbs. Without a tail, Winter risks developing spinal problems that would cut her life short.

Fact: Winter – so named because she arrived on a cold December day – did turn around the fortunes of the aquarium, which was financially strapped five years ago. There was no rich developer, however, wanting to tear it down to build a resort.

Clearwater's closeup

Most of "Dolphin Tale" takes place at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which was closed for weeks while the movie was being filmed. The second floor of the abandoned Harborview City Center in downtown Clearwater served as a set for the interior of the home of Sawyer and his mother (Ashley Judd).

Other locales include the backyard of a home on Betty Lane in Clearwater; the swimming pool at a Clearwater recreation facility, the Long Center; the Mildred Helms Elementary School in Largo; studios of Bay News 9; Admiral Farragut Academy in St. Petersburg (doubled for a veteran's administration hospital).

Supporting players

More than 200 people, cast, production crew, and extras, were involved in "Dolphin Tale" with most of the principle roles going to actors from Los Angeles.

There also were several experienced and novice actors from the Miami area such as Kim Ostrenko, who plays the mother of Austin Stowell's character, a soldier wounded in Iraq. And fledgling actress Ashley White, a former Miami Dolphins cheerleader and a former Miami TV anchor, plays Bay News 9 reporter Sandra Sinclair.

Just a few roles went to actors from the Tampa area, and most of those were as extras. Denise Daskam, who runs a boot camp in Oldsmar, got some speaking lines playing a member of the marine hospital's board of directors.

Greg Amira, of Pinellas County, who is retired from U.S. Army Special Operations and is president of WoundedVets.org., says 39 wounded veterans were used as extras.

The locally based actor with the highest-profile role is Jim Fitzpatrick, a former football standout at Seminole High and professional player with the Tampa Bay Bandits. "It was great to have a first-rate production made here because it could bring more films to the area," says Fitzpatrick, who plays the father of Austin Stowell's character. After working in daytime soaps and Hollywood feature films, Fitzpatrick has returned to Pinellas as an independent filmmaker.

Other Bay-area productions

Among the more notable films and TV shows shot locally:

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