The Clearwater Marine Aquarium (www.seewinter.com) has the slightly dilapidated look of a one-time municipal sewage treatment plant, which, by the way, it is. While the holding pools sparkle with filtered seawater, space in this shopworn marine rescue and rehabilitation center is cramped, to say the least. The aquarium staff is equal parts tattooed trainers and bustling Florida retirees, who cheerfully arrange scratched-up white plastic chairs for the next onslaught of visitors. If you're looking for SeaWorld, you've come to the wrong place.
But what really draws the crowds is a charismatic bottlenose dolphin named Winter, soon to be a big movie star. This funky little aquarium, its star attraction, and the city of Clearwater are gearing up for the big-time bump in tourism expected after Dolphin Tale opens on September 23rd. The major motion picture from the makers of The Blind Side has been getting rave advance reviews; the trailer alone is a three-hanky three minutes. Filmed right here in the Clearwater aquarium, the Warner Brothers movie stars Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd -- and Winter, of course, who plays herself. It's the story of a dolphin without a tail.
Five and a half years ago a fisherman in the waters near Cape Canaveral noticed a crab-trap buoy out of line. Hearing what sounded like desperate gasps, he pulled the trap to the surface and found a three-month-old dolphin entangled in the ropes, its tail hanging by a thread.
A dolphin without a tail is like a boat without a rudder. "Winter should have died," says Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates. "She's just a fighter." Aquarium staff had to hold Winter 24 hours a day to keep her from sinking to the bottom, while experts around the world were contacted for help. Confronted with the extent of Winter's infirmity, most responded with a terse "Sorry." Except for one: prosthetic specialist Kevin Carroll of the Hanger Orthopedic Group, who took on the challenge to create a prosthetic tail.
In the meantime, Winter thrived and adapted. She developed an entirely original side-to-side swimming pattern, using her flippers to propel herself. So by the time the prosthetic tail arrived more than a year later, she had done what no other dolphin in captivity has done: She could swim without a tail.
Winter now wears her new tail four or five times a day as part of an ongoing physical therapy regimen. (She holds perfectly still while the trainer slips it on.) Winter's silicone gel sleeve -- developed to protect her skin from chafing against the prosthetic tail -- has been found to ease pain in human amputees. In fact, visiting Winter has become a pilgrimage of sorts for amputees, wounded soldiers, and sick children. "We see Winter change the lives of children every day," says Yates.
Clearwater is clearly primed for its close-up. This Gulf Coast town already had one of the prettiest beaches in the country, with melting sunsets and powdery white sand and 350 miles separating it from the nearest oil rig. But things have been spiffed up considerably, with a new bridge, gleaming new hotels, and best of all, the curvaceous Beach Walk, which replaced a giant parking lot. This half-mile pedestrian promenade now meanders leisurely along the broad beach, past gazebos and shady palm trees.
With a population of 112,000, Clearwater is the small town in the booming Tampa Bay/St. Petersburg/Clearwater tri-city area. The town's sunny, human-scale landscape and gentle seas make it one giant kids' playground. There's Captain Memo's Pirate Cruise (www.captainmemo.com), the Pier 60 seaside playground, and the historic open-air Jolly Trolley (www.clearwaterjollytrolley.com) for giddy transport around town.
But it's Winter the dolphin they come for. Winter loves people, but she has an almost kinetic connection with children. She follows kids with a steady, soft-eyed gaze and even whistles when they go by. Kids love her back. "Her skin," said one smitten 5-year-old, "is like velvet!" Already the throngs are showing up at Winter's door, and attendance is expected to double after the movie opens. A new dolphin tank built by the filmmakers is now the home of Winter and Panama, and the aquarium is preparing a fancy $12-million expansion with a 625-seat theater. It's not SeaWorld -- yet. But on the back of a little dolphin pulled up from a crab pot, it looks like Clearwater has struck gold.
Where to Stay: Hyatt Regency Clearwater Beach Resort and Spa (301 S. Gulfview Blvd; tel. 888/591-1234; www.clearwaterbeach.hyatt.com): This snazzy oceanfront property opened in early 2011 and has an 8th-floor outdoor pool with sparkling sunset views and a beachside patio restaurant where Bob the white egret presides. Sandpearl (500 Mandalay Ave.; tel. 877/726-3111; www.sandpearl.com): Stay right on the beach in this luxury hotel, with an oceanside lagoon pool.
Where to Eat: Palm Pavilion (10 Bay Esplanade; tel. 727/446-2642; www.palmpavilion.com): It's always a beach party at the Palm, since 1926 one of the city's top spots to watch the sunset and dine on seafood, burgers and ribs). Frenchy's (tel. 727/446-2642; http://frenchysonline.com): The fried grouper sandwich is the house specialty at this local classic, with four Clearwater locations.