Winter of the Dolphins on Florida's West Coast

A film about a plucky dolphin's fight to overcome the odds will focus attention on area wildlife venues

Among the many outdoor and seaside venues available on Florida’s West Coast are the aquariums, zoos, and other sea animal rescue facilities scattered from the Keys all the way to the Panhandle. Especially in the evening, after public hours have ended, they are able and eager to accommodate groups for everything from meetings and teambuilding events to cocktail parties and gala dinners, generally incorporating the resident dolphins.

And come this fall, no dolphin on Florida’s West Coast—or anywhere in the world—will be more famous than Winter, the prosthetic-tailed star resident of Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) in Clearwater, FL, near Tampa. The five-year-old female’s struggle to survive and thrive after becoming entangled in a crab trap’s line as a baby is the subject of a major motion picture from Warner Bros. A Dolphin Tale, starring Morgan Freeman and Ashley Judd, will hit cinemas across the country in late September, in regular and 3D format.

Filming recently wrapped at CMA, which is “not just an aquarium but an animal hospital that happens to be open to the public,” says Krista Rosato, the facility’s director of marketing. The facility is home to North American river otters, sharks, rays, and endangered sea turtles, as well as the dolphins.

Having gained a new 80,000-gallon aquarium tank to accommodate the needs of the film, CMA is currently working on a $12 million capital campaign and expansion, with work set to end in December. While it will remain open, “The new building will have dedicated meeting space and a new community space,” says Rosato. “It will increase our capacity for groups and meetings significantly.” The final capacity will be 1,500. Currently, there is a classroom for 100 and a theater that can hold 65 for dinner and 85 for cocktails, says Ivy Carrasquillo, CMA’s events coordinator and development assistant. The Harbor Deck, facing Winter’s tank looking in and the gulf sunsets facing out, now holds about 250 comfortably. 

Private dolphin shows and interactions are a standard feature of group events. Photo ops with Winter for groups of 10 at a time can be arranged, and for VIPs there are a small number of in-pool interactions and touch-and-feed sessions on the pool deck daily. 

Carrasquillo notes, “We are starting to see the effect of the movie already. Book early if you want it after September.”

Dolphins Everywhere
The CMA isn’t the only aquarium in the area. The Florida Aquarium in nearby Tampa can accommodate groups of up to 3,000 for a full buyout, including the Coral Reef Gallery and Shark Bay; up to 175 for receptions in the Coral Reef exhibit (110 for dinner); 30 to 350 in the outdoor Explore-A-Shore exhibit; up to 150 theater-style in the Taylor Great Room (100 for dinner); and 30 to 100 in the two classrooms. The Aquarium also has the 72-foot, 139-passenger Bay Spirit II for eco-tours of Tampa Bay’s dolphins, manatees, and other sea life. 

The Florida Gulfarium in Ft. Walton Beach, on the Panhandle, can accommodate groups of up to 1,200, with three shows (dolphins, sea lions, and both) running simultaneously. The Living Sea special events room holds up to 64 for dinner, using the 42,000 gallon fish and coral tank as a backdrop. Dolphin meet-and-greets can be arranged. 

Sarasota’s Mote Marine Laboratory is a not just an aquarium, it is a research facility that started out in 1955 by focusing on sharks and has since expanded into other areas, from sea turtles to Red Tide, the common name for a population explosion of microorganisms. The main aquarium and courtyard can handle 1,000 for cocktails and 500 for dinner, and provides access to all exhibitions, including the 135,000 gallon shark tank and reef fish exhibit. The Marine Mammal Center Room can host 300 for cocktails or 250 seated, while the New Pass Room and its expansive balcony offer views of Sarasota Bay and the gulf. It seats 250 for dinner. 

Another research facility, the Dolphin Research Center (DRC) on Grassy Key, next to Marathon Key, prides itself on customizing programs for groups, says Kirsten Donald, a marine mammal biologist and DRC director of education. It is able to handle groups of eight to 50, for anything from a half-day to a week-long buyout. Possible activities run from a simple swim with dolphins to interactive educational sessions showing off the center’s cognitive research into the smartest species after man, such as practicing imitation—other than dolphins, only chimpanzees can do this, and not nearly as well, Donald says.