We are kicking off a new feature on our blog called Explore. Play. Discover, a series of blog posts sharing our reviews of fun places to play. We hope this series will help not just with vacation or field trip planning, but will also bring exposure to incorporating play into your travel fun.
For our first entry, we are sharing our recent visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium. This marine rescue center and aquarium is located in Clearwater, Florida, and although it has been in operation for years, it was made famous by the Dolphin Tale movies. The popularity of the movies has certainly increased the number of visitors to the aquarium and has increased funds to improve the facilities and services.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium was easy to find and we were able to find (free) parking close to the entrance because we arrived early. Visitors arriving later park farther away. General Admission pricing is $21.95 for adults, $16.95 for children, $19.95 for seniors, and children under 2 are free. The kids were super excited to see the actual houseboat filmed in the movie outside the aquarium and loved pointing out the features they remembered.
While my 9 and 11 year old were overly excited to see Winter (the Dolphin famously rescued), we were all pleasantly surprised by the other experiences offered. We got a tour of the animal hospital and the well educated volunteers showed us a huge board that tracks when animals were brought in, from where, what their injuries are, and when their expected release is planned. We saw a sea turtle brought in a few days earlier with a cracked shell that was bandaged and resting. We learned that sea turtles are at risk for a virus similar to HPV in humans and that their center is one of a few in Florida that perform laser surgery to remove harmful growths caused by the virus. Our daughters got to hold a bucket filled with the amount of fish a dolphin eats daily. We learned that anyone from the Coast Guard to boaters can call if they spot injured marine life and that Clearwater Marine Aquarium goes out to rescue them.
Next, we made a beeline for the VIPS of this place, Winter and Hope (we could hardly hold the kids back). They are in the tanks that they were filmed in during the movie and were separated at first and then joined together. Trainers on a microphone shared with the crowd the daily routines and care of both dolphin and we got to observe Winter getting therapy to help his prosthetic continue to fit. She didn’t seem to mind the stretches! The kids got to hold an examine one of Winter’s prosthetic tales, which was incredibly cool!
Next to their tanks were sea turtles with missing limbs, damaged shells and several sea otters. One was paralyzed when hit by a car and could swim with only the top half of his body. Another was raised by a man living on a fishing boat for a year (frowned upon by marine staff) until it “got a bit out of control” and they explained this sea otter acts very odd due to it’s early experiences (See what we do in those first few years really is THAT important!). We also saw the loud and noisy bird, Ricky, that was in the video and another dolphin that had been injured similarly to Winter. There were several stations where we could touch and see small aquatic animals and plants, including sting rays (75% of us was brave enough), and ask questions There were also several tanks with a variety of fish and even some sharks.
This location also included (of course) a gift shop with a variety of souvenirs. We didn’t buy any but my favorite was a plush Winter whose tail could come on/off. We did cave to buy photos of the kids made using a green screen, which were pricey but precious at $30 for both, but too cute to pass up! Towards the entrance of the aquarium they sold limited drinks and concessions and snow cones for enjoying outside under a tent.
Fairly new to Clearwater Marine Aquarium is a second spot a few miles away where they showcase features from the Dolphin Tale movies called Winter’s Dolphin Tale Adventure. We took an open-air trolley to this location (included with the general admission) and did not have to wait long for the ride there or back. At this location, we saw artifacts from the movie (Sawyers bike, the kitchen and bedroom from his house etc.) and could walk through a simulated hurricane (full with high winds, noise, and water). This only took a few minutes but was fun! This location did have a slightly larger refreshment stand, where we enjoyed ice cream and popcorn. I believe there may have been hot pretzels and hotdog type foods too. There was a hands on area for younger children where smaller climbing structures were available and children could write a letter to Winter. A nice surprise was that Cozi Zuehlsdorff, the actress that played Hazel Haskett in Dolphin Tale was visiting and did a Q&A session and a meet-n-greet.
I would certainly recommend Clearwater Marine Aquarium as a great option for a family activity. Here are a few details to consider:
TIME NEEDED: I’d allow ~2 hours if you only do the main animal hospital and ~3-4 hours if you visit the location dedicated to the movies.
AGES APPROPRIATE FOR: There’s really something here for everyone and I did see small babies that would enjoy the visuals, but overall, I’d say this is most appropriate for 2-3 years old and up, with 6 and up likely able to fully understand the educational component (of course we believe even babies learn from their environment). ** The hurricane simulation might be scary for younger children.
ADDITIONAL TIPS: If going in prime sun hours, take sunscreen. The top deck and waiting areas for the trolley are outside. We enjoyed lunch afterwards at Frenchies with cousins we were visiting. They suggested this beachy local chain (and it was quite good). Interestingly, the kids insisted on watching Dolphin Tale that evening and noticed Frenchies is mentioned in the movie, so I guess you could say we had a fully authentic Dolphin Tale adventure.
DEVELOPMENTAL SCORE: (we decided to add this is a potential 5 star rating system, scoring how many developmentally appropriate, hands on, movement or sensory based activities are offered). We give Clearwater Marine Aquarium 5/5 stars! ★★★★★
BANG FOR THE BUCK: Considering there were two locations to visit, multiple hands on experiences, major educational experiences, well educated engaging volunteers and staff, and that we were in Florida at an attraction and we didn’t stand in line or feel Closter phobic, it was certainly worth the money we spent. When you consider that part of your admission funds care of these animals — it is icing on the cake!
Most interestingly to me, is that in the movie many children with physical and mobility challenges, including amputees visit Winter and Clearwater Marine Aquarium. While this touched both myself (a PT) and my husband (an OT), we figured it was sprinkled in as Hollywood’s “glitter” to bring he movie full circle. I was pleasantly surprised to see for myself that it was actually true, as many times during our visit I caught myself checking out a kid’s sleek gait trainer or wheelchair and noticing orthotics. I have to say it was even sweeter in real life to observe the look on these little warriors faces as they watched animals preserve the same ways they do. So if you are a therapist, or simply a sucker for underdogs winning big time, you may experience the same joy on your visit!
Here at Milestones & Miracles, LLC we BELIEVE that PLAY is the way we all learn, but especially young children and most certainly when encouraged by an involved parent. If you believe in play to learn too, check out 1-2-3 Just Play With Me (the perfect resource made by therapists and moms!).