CLEARWATER — Dan Belcher has been a professional sand sculptor for 22 years, and this year alone has traveled as far as Dubai and Italy creating larger-than-life spectacles. But learning that he would be in charge of bringing the beloved Winter the Dolphin to life in her hometown for the second Pier 60 Sugar Sand Festival in Clearwater Beach was still a tall order, he said.
“I’m from St. Louis, so I had no idea “Dolphin Tale” was even filmed here until I was carving and they told me it would be the most photographed piece in here, so no pressure,” Belcher said as he started work on busts of the Marx Bros. on Sunday for this year’s movie-themed display. “Doing a sculpture in front of a live audience can either boost your ego or really tear you down, because a 5-year-old will not hesitate to tell you what your doing wrong. But so far, Winter’s gotten good reviews.”
Luckily for Belcher, Winter is joined by the hand prints of cast mate Nathan Gamble and is nothing short of a showstopper at the 10-day festival, which runs through April 13.
“It’s totally awesome,” said 8-year-old “Dolphin Tale” fan Natalie Kangelos, who traveled to Clearwater from Orlando with her mom and friends to see the festival’s rendition of Winter. “Winter was my favorite thing other than swimming in the water. This trip was definitely worth the drive.”
Thousands braved stop-and-go traffic and parking shortages throughout Clearwater Beach to filter through the sand festival’s large tent, and lines were forming for the walk-through exhibit well before doors opened at 10 a.m. But for event coordinator Lisa Chandler, the overwhelming response is easy to explain.
“The one thing that separates us from all those other beaches in Florida and the one reason why people travel from all over the world to come here is what’s right under our feet — the sand,” Chandler said. “That’s our wow factor. If it was filled with shells and hard to walk on, people wouldn’t be as enticed to kick off their shoes and stay here.”
It’s the sand that secured Clearwater Beach’s numerous titles like “Best Beach Town in Florida” and “Best Family Beach.” It has also sustained beach-side businesses like Pier 60 concessions and Barefoot Beach House restaurant, which Chandler has owned with her husband, Steve, for the past 20 years.
That’s why when the couple, which volunteers their time to organize the nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 festival, was approached by the city of Clearwater last year to help rebrand the Sun and Fun festival, Chandler knew the sand had to take center stage. In just 90 days, she was able to secure the necessary $140,000 in sponsorships and individual donations to bring in the Sarasota-based Team Sandtastic sculpting company. Once the city saw the sculptors’ aquatic-themed creations at last years festival, it was much easier to make this year’s event nothing short of “spectacular,” she said.
On Sunday, hardly a shoe was in sight.
It took nine sculptors nine days to create the 15,000-square-foot “Beach Walk of Fame,” a play on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Clearwater’s beach-side promenade. It took three days to truck in and compact 1,000 tons of sand and two fire trucks to make sure every granule was kept wet for sculpting. Some days, the work on the “Where’s Waldo”-like collage of iconic movie characters spanning Charlie Chaplain to Ron Burgandy lasted 12 to 14 hours.
“It’s almost like a guessing game, trying to pick out characters or guess what movies they’re from and listening to the movie soundtracks we’re playing for clues,” Chandler said. “There’s a couple that always seem to stump people.”
There have been few sculpting disasters, other than a wayward Dracula finger that took Belcher about an hour to fix Sunday. But once the tent comes down April 13, the colossus will be nothing but a memory, reduced to housing for turtle nesting season.
Booths are carved out of sand for three-course, sunset dinners benefiting local charities and businesses like Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. All beer, wine and ticket sales go back to the theatrical Pier 60 daily festivals, which fly in street performers to join the typical artisans, magicians, musicians and fire-juggling unicyclists that populate the pier. In addition to the exhibit, beachgoers can attend sand sculpting clinics, watch fireworks this Saturday and go on a beach egg hunt at 2 p.m. April 13.
Tickets for the Sugar Sand festival are $8, with $5 tickets for college students and seniors and $4 tickets for ages 6 to 17. Children 5 and younger get in free.