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'Dolphin Tale' sequel likely to boost aquarium


Published:   |   Updated: July 29, 2013 at 09:21 AM

CLEARWATER - The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is set to become home to two movie star dolphins, as Hollywood film crews plan to return this fall for a sequel to the hit family film "Dolphin Tale."

Gov. Rick Scott joined aquarium officials Friday to announce the anticipated follow-up to the 2011 film that's credited with nearly quadrupling attendance at this small waterside attraction and creating scores of film and tourism jobs.

"Dolpin Tale 2" will expand the story of Winter, a rescued dolphin that has learned to swim with a prosthetic tale, while introducing another dolphin rehabilitated by the aquarium, Hope.

Production of the first film directly put 1,300 people to work during the 55-day film shoot and led the aquarium to increase staff from 45 to more than 200 people in the past two years to handle the jump in tourism.

Alcon Entertainment expects to shoot from October to mid-January and will bring Hollywood stars Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd back for the sequel.

"We've been working hard on the development of this sequel for a year now," aquarium Director David Yates said.

For the aquarium, which is looking to build a new $160-million facility in downtown Clearwater, the star-studded film shoot couldn't come at a better time. Residents will vote in November on whether to lease the City Hall property for the new aquarium.

"Amazing how that worked out timing wise, isn't it?" said Yates, adding that Alcon called him late Thursday night to tell him the project was a go and that the shoot would begin this fall.

"Obviously, we believe in our downtown project no matter what, but having 'Dolphin Tale 2' in process during that time frame will help remind people of the economic impact we're delivering. It will be a very visible reminder of that."

The aquarium's main Island Estates site will be closed during filming, though Yates anticipates special events with the actors at the separate Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, a behind-the-scenes exhibit about the movie in downtown Clearwater.

Scott credited Florida legislators Sen. Jack Latvala and Rep. Ed Hooper with securing $5 million in state funds to help with the aquarium's costs for production and marketing of the film.

"Just look at what the film has already done, so the odds are we'll get a great return on investment," he said.

Attendance at the aquarium jumped from about 200,000 before the release of the original film to 750,000 last year.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater deputy director David Downing said the movie introduced Pinellas County to audiences around the world and has brought in scores of out-of-state visitors who have come to Clearwater specifically to see Winter.

"This is something that has really opened up a new stream of tourism to Pinellas County," Downing said.

The aquarium has sought to leverage the star power of its dolphin to construct a massive new building in downtown Clearwater, which is projected to draw 2.5 million people.

Officials have said they will need $35 million to $60 million in government funding from state agencies, county bed tax funds and city tax-increment financing set aside for downtown development.

Clearwater Mayor George Cretekos said he's confident in the continued star power of Winter and her new co-star.

"With Winter and with Hope, we get to inspire a generation."

The movie is scheduled for release in September 2014.

jboatwright@tampatrib.com

(727)215-1277

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