Clearwater, Florida -- To say that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is on a roll is an understatement.
This week, the film "Dolphin Tale 2" -- which was shot in large part at the aquarium -- arrives in theaters. And just a couple of weeks ago, the aquarium announced plans for a multi-million dollar expansion.
See More: Plans for new Clearwater Marine Aquarium
10 News recently had the chance to speak to some of the stars and filmmakers from "Dolphin Tale 2" along with executives at the aquarium. They all agree the continuing story of Winter the dolphin is helping to put the Clearwater Marine Aquarium on the map.
"I was absolutely floored when I realized the effect that the first film had on so many people," said Charles Martin Smith who wrote and directed both "Dolphin Tale" movies. "They began flooding into Clearwater. I mean, attendance just soared at that aquarium."
"Soared" is putting it mildly. The year before the original "Dolphin Tale" came out, attendance at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was under 78,000. The year after, it was 750,000.
"It's been a multi-billion -- with a 'b' billion -- dollar impact," said Clearwater Marine Aquarium CEO David Yates, who is also an executive producer for "Dolphin Tale 2." "It's filled up our hotels, when people come to see us from around the world they eat our restaurants, they buy gas at our gas stations. So it's been great for us, but great for the entire community, too."
The CMA recently announced plans for a new, $68 million dollar facility overlooking Clearwater Harbor, focusing on the aquarium's core values of rescue, rehabilitation and release.
"To see the expanded opportunity for hard science and the greater number of animals that are being helped and released...this is a positive experience from every angle," said Ashley Judd who stars as Lorraine Nelson in both films.
"They're gonna come to Florida anyway," Oscar winner Morgan Freeman--who plays Dr. Cameron McCarthy--told 10 News. "A lot of people come to Florida for vacation. But now this has become a destination for them rather than say EPCOT or some other place."
And with a new film hitting theaters on Friday, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium should be a destination for decades.
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