A little bit of dolphin star power is giving this Gulf Coast community a big economic boost.
"Dolphin Tale," the movie that tells the story of Winter the tailess dolphin, is expected to generate more than a half-billion dollars next year to Pinellas County, according to an economic study conducted by the University of South Florida, St. Petersburg College of Business, the Clearwater Marine Institute and Alcon Entertainment, which produced the film.
"This is the best example of film induced tourism you will ever see," said David Yates, CEO of the marine rescue facility and an executive producer on the movie. "It will provide tremendous promotional opportunities for many years to come."
The study was released Thursday at a presentation at the aquarium, with the star of the movie wowing visitors a few feet away.
After the release of "Dolphin Tale" in Sept. 2011, aquarium visitors increased by 300 percent, according to the report. And those numbers are expected to continue their dramatic rise through 2016.
"We've gone from 750 visitors a day to 2,500 visitors," Yates added. "On our busiest day, we've peaked at 5,000. The bottom line is (the economic impact) is not going to go away. It can go on for many, many years."
There also has been a boost in business to hotels, restaurants, taxi and car rental services and gas stations, among others, the study found.
Tony Starova, owner of Tony's Pizzeria Restaurant in downtown Clearwater, said the movie continues to have a positive impact on his pizza business.
He saw business double from the previous year, gained five new positions and was able expand his restaurant.
"It's been wonderful," Starova said. "It's allowed downtown Clearwater to live up to the potential we always knew it could be."
Unlike movies such as "Dances with Wolves," "Field of Dreams" and "Thelma & Louise," which draw tourists to locations and attractions in the film, "Dolphin Tale" is unique in that the star of the film, Winter, is real and currently resides at the aquarium, where the movie was filmed.
"There's an emotional connection viewers have with Winter," Yates said. "I believe (this film) has created a climate that will bring more films to the area."
The movie also provided work for locals. Eighty percent of the film crew was local residents.
"Dolphin Tale," starring Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., and Winter, earned $72 million domestically at the box office. The movie is playing on HBO, is out on DVD and has been sold to ABC Family Network.
Filmed in Clearwater, the 3-D movie was inspired by the story of a now 7-year-old bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after being tangled in a crab trap in the Atlantic when it was a few months old. It survived to become a star attraction, thanks to a series of prosthetic tails.