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Family Travel: Clearwater Marine Aquarium

A huge thanks to CMA who hosted us for our visit.  Our visit was a true bucket list item for my children that was so exciting to be able to check off!

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Sometimes there are movies that just touch your heart, that really move you.  Dolphin Tale was one of those movies for my family.  From the first time my oldest watched Dolphin Tale, he loved it.  He was inspired by the relationship Sawyer had with Winter, the way he cared for and looked out for her, really all those at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

He often talked about seeing Winter on our next trip to Florida.  Then when Dolphin Tale 2 came along, Hope quickly found a spot in my children’s hearts as well. Their story of the struggles they went through and their friendship that developed was something that even my children, ages seven and eight could understand.  Seeing Winter and Hope quickly rose to the top of their Florida bucket list.

We did make several trips, but due to circumstances always stayed in the central part of the state.  So when it became time to actually make plans to visit again for work, the children pleaded.  Seeing Winter and Hope was more important to my oldest two than visiting Disney World.  The connection they felt from watching the movies were real.  Even though we had talked to them many times about Sawyer and Hazel not actually being present at the aquarium, to them, they were part of the story.  Austin would speak of CMA (Clearwater Marine Aquarium) as if everyone should know what it was.

We watched Dolphin Tale the night before we visited and anticipation was in the air knowing that we would actually be visiting for real!  The day finally arrived to actually visit.  I am not sure who was more excited, my children or my husband.  We decided at the suggestion of CMA to visit The Dolphin Tale Experience first.  It is housed in a building a short distance from the actual Aquarium but it is something to see for any Dolphin Tale fan.

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The Dolphin Tale Experience is full of fun props from the movie, scenes that have been laid out, like Sawyer’s workshop, his bicycles from the movie, the props from making Winter’s tail, the carnival games made for the fundraiser and much more.  There is a touch pool where the children were able to feel sea urchins and come face to face with a funny crab.  You can walk through parts of Sawyer’s home while experiencing bits of a hurricane yourself.

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Then there is Winter’s Wall of Hope.  This might just be the most touching part of the experience.  You see, so many children connected with Winter in a way that maybe they didn’t expect.  Children that were experiencing struggles of their own were inspired by her story of survival and her will to survive despite loosing her tail.  The wall if full of those children’s stories that contain bits and pieces of their hearts through letters and artwork.  It was truly inspiring.

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From The Dolphin Tale Experience you can either ride a trolley or take a boat across the water to the Aquarium.  We rode a boat over and then the trolley back.  They run quite frequently and the final boat departure of the day was announced on the intercom.  The boat ride was part of the adventure for the children.  We watched little fish from the dock and then lots and lots of jellyfish in the water and we coasted through the bay.

It was with great excitement as they spotted the aquarium.  While visiting, keep in mind that the aquarium is indeed a real marine hospital with the purpose of rehabilitation and releasing the animals back into the wild if they are indeed able, so don’t plan your visit as if you were visiting a regular aquarium.  When we first walked in we were separated but I couldn’t help but wander the halls and watch as they had just had an injured sea turtle brought in and were beginning to inspect her.

I was amazed at how immaculate the kitchen was and spoke to the staff about the amount and type of seafood they used daily.  It is staggering and they feed their animals fresher, and better quality than most of us are accustomed too.  At that point I met back up with the family and we headed straight for Winter.  It was a great time of day as she was going through her physical therapy and we were able to watch the interaction.

There is an underwater viewing area which we were able to get up close and see from the underwater perspective, then we went above and watched from above the pool.  The children loved watching her interact with the therapist without her tail.  There are several staff members available to answer any questions you may have.  Of course the first question the children asked is, “Where is her tail?”  She actually doesn’t wear it every day.  They allow her to decide, and will try several times throughout the day to see if she will wear it, if she doesn’t feel like it, they don’t make her.

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During Winter’s physical therapy, Hope was in another pool and was ever so playful.  When they were reunited into the same pool, Hope indeed showed just how playful she is.  It really was exciting to watch their interaction and see the bond they have.  Then the children were eager to see the latest dolphin member of CMA, Nick and the Pelican that plays Rufus in the movie.

When it came time to see the Stingray pool, Miss B along with Austin were all arms in.  She is my brave little one and had her little arms outstretched just as far as they would go in hopes of having a stingray float beneath her fingers.  After patiently waiting for one to glide by, she let out the cutest little yelp of excitement.  After she felt the slippery stingray she was hooked and could have spent hours watching and waiting for another to glide by.  We spent quick of bit of time here and it was well worth it.

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As we rode the trolley back to The Dolphin Tale experience, there was constant chatter.  Each child had their favorite moment and takeaway from the day.  With their mini Winter plushes grasped tightly in their hands, their arms  swinging back and forth as they walked, the smiles beamed from their faces.  They saw Winter and all was well.  I smiled knowing that this would be one of those moments they would remember.  A moment that they made a true memory.

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While it was so much fun to visit CMA and finally see Winter, it was also a great opportunity for the children to see firsthand how our actions have direct impacts on animals and their habitats.  Most animals that end up at CMA are there because of an injury that is directly related to negligence on behalf of a human being.  The traps and nets Winter were tangled in when she was rescued were carelessly cast aside without a second thought.  Although young, it made a huge impression in their minds and on their hearts.

I can’t recommend visiting CMA enough if you are headed into the Tampa Bay/Clearwater area.  If you are not familiar with the famous Winter, be sure to watch Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 to see the stories behind CMA.  Although they are based upon the true stories, not all the characters in the film are real.  And if you can’t make it to the area to see Winter just yet, you can always watch her via the live feed that is streaming.   She is sure to win your heart over too!

To find out more about CMA, visit the following sites:

Official Clearwater Marine Aquarium website

Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure

The official Clearwater Marine Aquarium channel on Youtube