May 1, 2015

Clearwater Marine Aquarium (Winter’s Home)

Winter the Dolphin.

Say those three words and you’ll get one of two reactions from a kid: An excited smile or a blank stare. Those blank stares? They go away after a kid watches Dolphin Tale.

Winter is special and kids know it.

There’s something magical and inspiring about Winter. And the Clearwater Marine Aquarium knows it.

Disclosure: The thoughts and opinions expressed here are mine. My family received complimentary admission to Clearwater Marine Aquarium so that I could write about the experience. This post contains affiliate links. 

Clearwater Marine Aquarium - What it's like to visit Winter the dolphin's home in Florida

My family visited the aquarium during our visit to Tampa Bay. We knew Winter, the real rescued dolphin who helped saved the aquarium, was a big deal, but when you arrive Clearwater Marine Aquarium, you realize just Winter and her movie(s) how important they are there.

Tip: Watch a “Dolphin Tale” and “Dolphin Tale 2” before you visit. Things will make a lot more sense.

My initial impression of the aquarium was not the most positive. It did get better, so I should explain that I get irritated by places that make you pass through a gift shop before seeing the attraction.

We had to do that here, plus pose at a souvenir photo station before beginning our exploration of the aquarium. It’s all in good spirit, I suppose.

Our souvenir photos were cute after all.

Clearwater Marine Aquarium - If you know the movie "Dolphin Tale," you know Rufus. There's a Rufus photo opp at the aquarium in Florida.

And we had pretty much expected we wouldn’t be leaving the place without some sort of dolphin memorabilia. We ended up leaving with two dolphins – don’t forget Hope – and a plush Rufus.

But still. Couldn’t we just get right to the animals already?

A bit about this aquarium. It’s not like most; certainly, not like any I’ve been to… which is a good thing. It’s a functioning marine rescue center, so your little wanna-be vets and marine biologists are going to love it. They may get the chance to see pros in action, either doing regular physicals on the animals or in an emergency situation in the surgical suite.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - A look at one of the training sessions with a dolphin.
A trainer works with a dolphin at Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

Unlike the typical aquarium with resident stars, a lot of animals at the aquarium won’t be there forever. The mission of Clearwater Marine Aquarium? Three words: Rescue. Rehab. Release.

They’re doing great things.

And, if your kids loved “Dolphin Tale,” like really loved the movie, they’ll love seeing pieces of the set (don’t miss Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure), in addition to all the rescue animals.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - You'll see some recognizable things from the movie "Dolphin Tale"
Your kids may recognize this boat from “Dolphin’s Tale” parked at the dock at the aquarium.

While my kids didn’t get up close to Winter, they did get to hold a replica of her prosthetic tail, and they were pretty psyched.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - You can see a replica of Winter's prosthetic tale
If you can’t actually get up close to Winter the dolphin, holding her “tail” is a nice runner-up opportunity.

My kids each had different areas of the aquarium they liked best. My youngest gravitated to the stingray touch tank, again and again and again. The stingrays there were super friendly, way friendlier than I’ve ever seen them behave. My 3-year-old was tickled silly.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Stingray touch tank

My 5-year-old enjoyed watching the trainers with the dolphins. He observed one little girl’s personal session with a trainer and dolphin, and then was part of the crowd that was soaked by the onary dolphin at the end. He loved it.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Watch dolphin training sessions
My son’s favorite part of our visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium was watching the dolphin, Nicholas, and dolphin train in action. The best part? Getting splashed by the dolphin.

Locals and Clearwater fans alike have told me to expect a crowd at the aquarium, and they were right. This place draws families in. Indoors, it was sometimes difficult for our little ones to see much of the action between the trainers and the dolphins. Outdoors was great.

However, they found things they liked beyond that. There’s a classroom with a coloring station that drew my kids in.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Kids' activities
The aquarium does a good job helping even the youngest visitors understand its mission.

And it had a few items the kids could gently touch. And if you’re really into educational videos, there’s one playing on loop in there.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Educational exhibits for kids
Where’s the turtle?

Clearwater Marine Aquarium takes every opportunity it has to educate visitors, and it does it well. Whether it’s a storytime geared toward younger kids, or words of encouragement on the walls telling visitors how they can help, the aquarium stays true to its mission.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Touch tanks
Touch tanks at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

If you really want to make your visit memorable, the aquarium offers many opportunities for animal encounters, from feeding a puffer fish to getting up close to dolphins (even Winter!).

This aquarium was one of the highlights of the trip for my kids, which totally surprised me. Winter has that power.

What it's like visiting Clearwater Marine Aquarium - Winter souvenir
Farley used his Hope replica as a model for his drawing of Winter he made on our return flight. His little sister wouldn’t give up Winter.
What to expect when you visit Clearwater Marine Aquarium - the home to Winter the dolphin #Florida #TampaBay #familytravel
Visiting the home of Winter the dolphin from "Dolphin Tale" - If you're traveling to Clearwater, Florida, plan a trip to visit the Clearwater Marine Aquarium! Read this post to know more about what to expect if you visit this aquarium. #Florida #familytravel #dolphins

Explore more of Tampa Bay

Thinking of flying your family to Tampa? Check out our two-day Tampa Bay itinerary! We crammed a lot in, which I actually wouldn’t suggest. Mix and match my recommended places to see:

The Florida Aquarium 

Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI)

Morean Arts Center and Hot Shop

Columbia Restaurant

I also wrote about the Allegiant Air direct flight from Omaha to the Tampa Bay area, so check that out, plus if you need a hotel suggestion and you L-O-V-E food and pampering, read my post about Epicurean Hotel in the beautiful Hyde Park area of Tampa.

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