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Our girls fell in love with Winter the dolphin and had been begging to go see her in person at Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Winter is an Atlantic bottlenose dolphin who lost her tail fluke and joint due to an injury from a crab trap line and now uses a prosthetic tail to preserve her spine.
Winter’s story of survival and adaption has inspired many others. Winter is now an ambassador for the rehab and rescue work at CMA, but also inspires millions to persevere through life’s toughest obstacles.
If you aren’t familiar with Clearwater Marine Aquarium do your family a favor and watch Dolphin Tale and Dolphin Tale 2 on Amazon Prime (or wherever you stream movies) for your next family movie night! These two movies are based on the true story of Winter’s rescue and rehab at CMA.
We partnered with Clearwater Marine Aquarium to share this unique marine rescue with you. CMA hosted us for a day of aquatic adventures on our recent visit to Clearwater, Florida and we have put together an insiders guide to visiting CMA with your family.
What is CMA?
Clearwater Marine Aquarium or CMA is a nonprofit working marine rescue center. The animals at CMA were all brought in due to illness or severe injury. The staff and volunteers at CMA perform rescue missions and care for the sick and injured marine life at CMA.
Their main goal is to release and they go to great lengths to ensure each animal has the greatest opportunity to return to the wild. The animals that cannot be released can become permanent residents at CMA.
Is CMA worth a visit?
I will admit when we first read Dolphin Tale and learned about Winter’s story my girls wanted to go immediately, but I wasn’t sure it was worth the trip. I kept an open mind and went to seewinter.com to find out more.
I was immediately impressed by the care CMA has taken to open their doors to the public without compromising on animal care or safety. CMA has been improving and expanding the facilities and programs as it has grown in popularity.
While we were visiting, they were working on the expansion project that will include tripling the dolphin habitat, adding new hospital facilities, doubling education space, increasing habitat for resident non-releasable animals and providing more space for guests (including more parking).
Through all of their growth and expansion they have kept many of the recognizable areas from movies intact. My kids were so excited that it looked just like the movie inside!
In addition to the focus on guest experiences, the amount of education, research and conservation at CMA is impressive! Every interaction with the CMA staff and volunteers exemplified their passion and commitment to marine life.
We value that dedication and are excited to support their mission: preserving our environment while inspiring the human spirit through leadership in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of marine life; environmental education; research; and conservation.
Can I see Winter at CMA?
In case it was not clear, YES you can see Winter the dolphin if you visit CMA. Winter is a permanent resident at CMA. She lives in a series of connected tanks called the Winter Zone. It was part of the movie set for the Dolphin Tale films.
During our visit we saw Winter doing some of her daily physical therapy with her prosthetic tail. It was a highlight of our trip to see the process of putting it on, exercising and taking it off.
The CMA staff work hard to make Winter accessible to all of her fans without overwhelming her. Winter can opt for more privacy when she wants to and there was a portion of the morning when she was in an area of the tank that was not visible.
We were able to watch Winter above the water in the Winter Zone as well as below the water in Shipwreck Alley. It was thrilling to see her swim right next to the viewing window.
We recommend watching the marine life from as many perspectives as possible because even at a young age, our girls were able to observe different details.
Winter is a live animal so there is always a chance she will not be visible during your visit. Her care takes precedence over guest experiences.
You can also see some of the other stars from the Dolphin Tale movies including: Hope, Rufus (Ricky) and Mavis (Harold). We learned that Rufus is actually a girl who started out in Hollywood and has retired to CMA.
Can I swim with Winter?
No, you cannot swim with dolphins at CMA. Winter does not participate in the animal encounters at CMA due to health concerns. Don’t worry though, there are lots of ways to see Winter and get up close with another resident animal.
We suggest either the dolphin photo or dolphin care experience. Please note that when you book an animal experience for a group only one participants will get to touch or feed the dolphin. Feedings are not guaranteed. These are very important expectations to set with children WAY in advance.
We suggest not making any promises about experiences since animals are unpredictable. We told our girls we were going to see where the Dolphin Tale movies were made and see if any of the animals from the movies were there. They were very excited to see so many of their favorites including Winter, Hope and Rufus.
CMA set us up with an animal encounter with Nicholas, a male resident dolphin. We got to touch and feed Nicholas. It was amazing to be up close and personal with a dolphin and it is something my kids will remember forever. They now compare the way things feel to how a dolphin feels.
How long does it take to tour CMA?
We suggest 2-3 hours minimum for a visit to CMA. Plan for longer if you add tours and experiences to your trip, which we think you should. There are presentations every 30 minutes around CMA so make sure your family has used the bathroom and fueled up before you enter.
The fun starts with movie props and info at the ticket counter area. Then when you enter the aquarium there is an opportunity for some CMA themed family photos using a green screen.
Once inside you can go from one presentation to another for an action packed day. If you miss these presentations you won’t get to see the animals as close or as active.
Because CMA is an animal hospital and rescue, the animals are not trained to perform for the guests. The presentations offer optional interactions between the trainers and animals that are entertaining and educational for all ages.
Several of the presentations repeat throughout the day incase you miss something or really enjoyed it and want more of it. The most entertainment value for our kids were the All About Otters, Resident Dolphin Talk and Pelican Presentations.
The Resident Dolphin Talk takes place outside on the Dolphin Terrace with resident dolphin, Nicholas. While CMA does not train animals to do tricks, Nicholas likes to play and he enjoyed showing off his flips and splashes to the crowd. It was fun to watch Nicholas play with his toys and interact with the staff.
We also learned about Nicholas’s rescue and recovery. Nicholas suffered from sunburns that left scars on his back. The rescue and recovery stories of the resident animals are great daily reminders to our family about the power of perseverance and love.
We also enjoyed a talk about the Real Winter. This presentation went over the differences between Winter’s story in the movie and what really happened. The talk was held next to Nicholas’ habitat, where he was playing and splashing around. My girls were very interested in the real story of Winter and why it was different than the movie version.
Our kids really liked playing in the dolphin excluder net. They ran through it, climbed on it and did flips inside it. We talked about how easy it would be to get caught in a net that doesn’t have the excluder if you were a dolphin. We decided all playgrounds need one of these!
Don’t miss the touch tank downstairs between Shark Pass and Shipwreck Alley. We got to touch a sea urchin and learn how they move. It was exciting for my girls to see one up close and learn how to safely handle something they had always seen as menacing.
In addition to the many free presentations the tours and animal encounters, available at an additional cost, allow you to get more hands on and learn more about CMA. There are age requirements and details about each opportunity on the CMA website.
There are cownose stingrays in the shallow pool known as Stingray Beach. We loved touching them and there are several opportunities to hand-feed the stingrays daily. Prices vary so check prices online or at Guest Services upstairs by the Winter Zone.
In addition to all the permanent residents you can go behind the scenes in the animal hospital to see current patients, including the turtle rehab.
Stop by the surgical suit and food prep area to see the staff in action. Get even more in depth with the behind the scenes tour that takes you to areas of CMA not open to the general public.
Find out about all the exhibits and sign up to receive a free visitor’s guide online before you go so you get the most out of your visit.
When is CMA open?
The regular hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Seasonally extended hours are 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. and run from February 14, 2020 to April 26, 2020.
CMA is open every day except Christmas Day and Thanksgiving Day.
We recommend you get to CMA right at opening. You will get good parking, the line for tickets will be short and you will be able to see the animal without the crowds. The busiest times of the day are between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. We had the best viewing opportunities before noon.
We recommend you avoid visiting in the days and weeks around major holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, spring break (March/April) and summer (June/July).
How much are tickets to CMA?
Tickets to CMA are available online or at the aquarium. To avoid long ticket sales lines buy your tickets online in advance and pick them up at will call. General Admission starts at $21.95 for kids (kids 0-2 are FREE) and $26.95 for adults. Online discounts are available.
You can buy General Admission tickets and purchase add ons later, but if you plan to do any tours you will save when you buy an admission package online. Book your animal encounters and tours as early as you can because they are limited and do sell out often.
If you are buying tickets onsite stop by the local Walgreens in Clearwater, FL and pick up Clearwater Beach maps that have $2 off coupons in them.
If you are going to be in the Tampa area you can get a CityPASS Tampa Bay for $199 for adults and $106 for kids. These passes are good for general admission into CMA as well as Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, The Florida Aquarium, ZooTampa at Lowry Park, and Museum of Science & Industry OR The Tropics Boat Tours.
Save on admission with a CMA Membership. A family of 4 membership is $99 and offers unlimited admission to CMA for 1 year. That is an amazing deal considering general admission for 2 adults and 2 kids is about $94! For a family of five (like us) it is the same price to get a family membership and general admission for 2 adults and 3 kids.
Membership benefits include discounts on programs, food and beverage, plus Free or 50% off general admission to reciprocal partners including zoos, aquariums, museums and gardens.
Where is CMA?
CMA is located in Clearwater, Florida near Tampa. If you are flying, the closest airport is Tampa International Airport. If you are driving from Orlando it takes about 90 minutes.
Take advantage of Jolley Trolley, Florida Free Rides, Clearwater Ferry and hotel shuttles to get to CMA. CMA also has bike rack near the front entrance.
Plan your visit to CMA
You can easily spend a day at CMA packed with aquatic adventures so it is important to plan ahead! CMA has both indoor and outdoor areas so plan accordingly for the Florida weather.
There is no food allowed upstairs, but there are tables by the Sharkbites Cafe and Coffee Shop. There is also nearby Island Way Grill that was used as the set for Sawyer’s going away party in Dolphin Tale 2!
No strollers larger than 36″ x 52″ (92 cm x 132 cm) are allowed, but if you can do without one I would leave the stroller behind. CMA has a lot of stairs and can get crowded so using a baby carrier or having the kids walk may allow for better animal viewing.
All of the usual rules also apply at CMA so be a good human, behave safely and use common sense, or read the CMA rules.
We can’t wait to go back
We had such an amazing experience at CMA that we cannot wait to return. My girls have been ‘playing CMA’ since we left. They take turns being the doctor and conservationist rescuing and caring for (stuffed) marine life in our living room.
We are excited to see the completed expansion project and stay at Winter the Dolphin’s Beach Club Hotel (coming soon!). We are also excited to experience other tours and encounters as our girls get older. We love that as our girls grow, they can continue to gain new experiences and knowledge at CMA.
CMA also offers camps during school breaks and summer that are perfect for budding marine biologist like mine!
See CMA online from home
While you plan your family trip to Clearwater, Florida, you can get to know the residents at Clearwater Marine Aquarium online. Follow Winter on Facebook or sign up for the CMA newsletter to get the latest updates on Winter’s progress. You can also watch her online via her live webcam.
Watch CMA on YouTube for videos of residents, rescues and releases. Enjoy the fun educational resources in the online kids zone.
Inspired by Winter?
Winter inspires in so many ways. If you are as inspired by Winter or CMA as we are, you can organize a fundraiser online or in your community to help support the mission of CMA: Rescue, Rehab & Release.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
249 Windward Passage
Clearwater, FL 33767
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