Experience a Hurricane at Clearwater Marine Aquarium
The latest attraction at Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, Hurricane Experience, is a walk through exhibit featuring recreated Dolphin Tale movie sets and the Category 1 Hurricane Leroy.
The lights flicker. Lightning flashes. Thunder claps.
The howl of wind comes through windows. There is rain and the popping from a downed power line is ear rattling.
Walk down the hallway, where drywall along the ceiling is broken. The floor rocks slightly back and forth, an aluminum lawn chair comes close to crashing through the half boarded up window.
Weather team analysts warn about flooding and former news anchor Jenn Holloway warns that Hurricane Leroy is making landfall at Clearwater Beach and the weather phenomenon, featuring the thunder and lightning, is unlike anything seen since 2005.
"Stay away from the windows," Holloway says. The screen flashes to a radar map and Holloway continues talking: "It is too late for you to evacuate."
For those who have been through a hurricane in the Tampa Bay area this scenario seems too close to home. However, it is part of "Hurricane Experience" the latest attraction at Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure in the Harborview Center.
The walk-through attraction features recreated sets from the movie Dolphin Tale and the Category 1 Hurricane Leroy from the film.
“Experience the only hurricane we want in Florida this year,” said David Yates, the aquarium president at the opening. “Everyone can explore this and not be too afraid.”
The Seelman family, Angela, 40, Dale, 49 and Emma, 12, came from North Carolina to kick off their summer vacation by visiting Winter the Dolphin.
Emma has the movie on DVD and has seen it at least five time. The family was surprised to find out they came to see Winter the day the new exhibit opened.
Was the Hurricane Experience like walking through the movie?
"Yeah," Emma said with a smile.
Yates said plans are in place to add new exhibits and attractions every six months to a year at the downtown location. He said they already are kicking a few ideas around for the next one.
Yates said the goal of the downtown venue was to relieve stress of additional visitors at the Island Estates facility and help revitalize downtown.
Aquarium officials asked the city to hold off on plans to demolish the aging Harborview Center saying they needed the additional space to handle increased crowds expected after the release of the Dolphin Tale movie. The city agreed to lease the facility to the aquarium for up to 30 months.
City crews worked to make the 54,000 square foot second floor space of the one time convention center, where part of the Dolphin Tale movie was filmed, habitable.
After a few months of work, the former Stein Mart department store transformed into Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure, a behind the scenes look at the movie. It features recreated sets from the movie, a sea creature touch tank from the movie, video feed from Winter’s tank and a gift shop.
Yates said USF is working on an economic study of the aquarium's impact that should be finished in a couple weeks.
Not withstanding, Yates said so far about 130,000 people have come to the downtown venue. Aquarium officials initially estimated the downtown destination would attract about 181,000 people to the area. Yates said they are on track to bring about 300,000 people to the attraction.
“The growth is as strong as when the movie came out,” Yates said. Mentioning that 20 years after the movie Field of Dreams, the Iowa farm where much of the movie was filmed is still a popular tourist destination.
Aquarium officials are in the middle of a $12 million fundraising initiative to build an expanded facility that would include a 1.4 million-gallon tank. Officials have talked in the past about expanding their presence at the downtown Clearwater location as part of an expansion of Coachman Park.