Will Warner Bros.' 'Dolphin Tale' Boost an Aquarium and Florida's Gulf Coast?

Publicity Campaigns For Facility and St. Pete/Clearwater Attempt to Bring Tourists, and Dollars, to Area

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Warner Bros. Dolphin Tale, which opened to about $20 million last weekend, is the (almost) true story of a rescued dolphin named Winter which lost its flipper after getting tangled in lines from a crab trap.

An ad in USA Today using the movie to promote Clearwater, Fla., and neighboring St. Petersburg.
An ad in USA Today using the movie to promote Clearwater, Fla., and neighboring St. Petersburg.

Fitted with a prosthetic flipper, Winter became a local celebrity and in turn, saved the struggling marine-rescue facility that saved her. Now that the movie has opened internationally -- with a reported $50 million marketing budget behind it -- can Winter help Clearwater, Fla., and neighboring St. Petersburg in their competition for tourism dollars against higher-profile Miami and Orlando?

In addition to the promotional efforts you would expect, Warner Bros. is attempting to capitalize on the fact that Winter is real, alive and, well, kicking. Its website features a Winter Webcam where users can control a live feed from Winter's tank. Warner Bros. also built a mobile app, "Dolphin Tale: Fling a Fish," where the user's job is to feed Winter.

Viewers are encouraged to donate, and to visit. So far, it appears to be working. Daily visitors to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium have quadrupled since the movie opened Sept. 23. More than 1,300 people visited the Saturday and Sunday of the movie's opening weekend, up from 300 people the same weekend in 2009 (the facility was close for filming this time last year.) That's close to the number of visitors that visited the Kennedy Space Center at the same time, one of Florida's main attractions.

The facility is hoping publicity and visitation related to the film will help it raise $12 million to rebuild the crumbling former sewage treatment plant, which houses Winter, several other dolphins, as well as sea turtles, sea otters, and other rescued wildlife. At the end of the movie, where movie-goers are shown pictures and videos of the actual rescue of Winter, there's a plug for viewers to donate and visit Clearwater.

"I'm very excited about the longevity of the film," said David Yates, director of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium and Executive producer of the film. "We have the elements that will give this movie the greatest impact on tourism because [people] want to see Winter."

Tourist officials in the St. Petersburg area are hoping to capitalize on the spotlight. "To have the Warner Bros. machine behind us, that 's going to kick [us] into high gear," said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, which is leveraging its own marketing budget to the connect the area that includes St. Petersburg and a string of Gulf towns like Clearwater, to the film.

That effort includes buying search ads around "winter" and "dolphin" terms, as well as references to the main actors; hosted screenings (with one of Winter's spare prosthetic tails); a sweepstakes for a four-day getaway for a family of four offered to people who buy tickets on Fandango.com; hang-tags on rental cars in Orlando; and a full-page, $150,000 national ad in USA Today. The ad mentions Winter's big-screen debut, but directly promotes St. Pete/Clearwater as the "marquee Florida hot spot" -- hoping to convert movie-goers to tourists.

Mr. Yates is hoping that the dolphin wave to be longer-lasting than just the movie. "There's the DVD that will be coming out -- a possible TV spin-off series, a sequel, a documentary -- there's a number of possible things," he said.

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