My Love-Hate Conflict with Hollywood

Confession time.

I have been dragging my feet about this blog entry, because I’ve had mixed feelings since our second visit to Clearwater Marine Aquarium and visiting our old pal, Winter the Dolphin. The reason is that I was really looking forward to seeing how all of the awareness generated by the Hollywood film, “Dolphin Tale,” had helped the aquarium. But when we got there … sadly … I didn’t see much of a change in the facility.

As a result, I am wrestling with love-hate feelings for the people behind the film.

Here’s why:

“Dolphin Tale,” which was released in the fall of 2011, had this wonderful ending. A rich guy decided to save the aquarium. He bought it and threw his money behind it. Everybody cheered! Harry Connick Jr. crooned in his Frank Sinatra style, and Ashley Judd waved her big floppy hat at the pelican, and the two kids in the film hugged, and the dolphin leaped out of the water, and we in the theater clapped our hands!

Woo hoo! We were so gleeful and couldn’t wait to get down to Florida to see how this rich guy had helped everybody! What a great guy!

Except when we showed up, we found out that when you say, “based on a true story,” it doesn’t mean the whole thing is true.

There was no rich guy.

The aquarium was busting at the seams with extra people, who, like us, had traveled to see this wonderful dolphin. But the facility badly needed more than a facelift.

At the time, I blogged about it, and we posted a photo of the fundraising effort, and I hoped that the aquarium would get the help it needed.

Fast forward two years.

Now we come back, and wow, yippy skippy, it looked on the surface like things had changed. When we first pulled up, there was a sign for ticket sales at a “new” kiosk, surrounded by new chairs and tables … and it looked like a new snack bar, too. But then when we got closer …. what we were seeing were just props for the sequel film that’s coming out this fall. The old picnic tables were still under the same white tent, as were the ticket sales people. There were a few changes  … but at best, they were cosmetic.

I did a little digging, and guess what … the first film had worldwide box office profits of $96 million.

Now subtract the $37 million production budget, and we have …. what’s left over?

$59 million dollars.

Now add DVD sales … as of July 7, 2012, they’d reached $23 million.

Well, that’s a grand total of $82 million.


I’m not a Hollywood reporter but the obvious question here is … if you’re going to make a film about a sick dolphin and the struggling operation that is supporting her and other sick animals, wouldn’t it be nice if you’d share some of the profits with that organization?

People are trying to help. There are corporate sponsors, and kids are even getting in on the act, trying to raise money for a new home for Winter. And in November, local voters approved the aquarium’s request to tear down Clearwater’s City Hall, build a new facility and lease that space for 60 years at $250,000 per year.

I have to give the folks at the aquarium credit. They have made the best of the situation. The film did increase public awareness about the environment and sea creatures, and I think that’s wonderful. But the screen writers (and producers) did a huge disservice to this facility BY TELLING EVERYBODY IN THE THEATER THAT A RICH GUY HAD BAILED IT OUT!

What the ????!!! (This blog is Rated G, so you can fill in the blanks in front of those question marks and exclamation points.)

Maybe I missed a story in which the film people gave the aquarium a big donation, and if I did, please let me know, and I’ll update the blog. But I haven’t seen any reports in that regard.

The aquarium is still raising funds. Want to help? You can see the plans and donate here:

Meanwhile, “Dolphin Tale 2” will be out this fall.

Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the windfall from this second film could make its way down to a certain dolphin’s home on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico?



An Aspie’s Video Tour of Clearwater Marine Aquarium

I almost didn’t publish this video, but on reflection, I decided it was really important to highlight what things look like through the eyes of a child on the Autistic Spectrum.

Neil has Asperger’s Syndrome and Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. He really wanted to do his own video tour of Clearwater Marine Aquarium. At first, I wanted to hold the camera and follow him around and interview him. But he insisted on doing it himself.

You may not be actually able to watch this video in its entirety (i.e., motion sickness, galore). You’ll see how quickly he moves, and most of the time, the camera is trained on the floor or on other people’s legs. But there are snatches of times when Neil focuses on the animals and tries to interact with them, particularly Winter the Dolphin.

Be aware that this video was taken on a full dose of his medication.

You will also hear Neil’s speech impediment. He has difficulty pronouncing his Rs, and that has been a source of bullying for him.

The reason I feel it’s important to post this is that those on the Autistic Spectrum are rarely, fully understood. Neil has a very high IQ and made straight As during the past academic year. However, you will see the world through his eyes — a rushed blur, where we move very quickly from one thing to the next. The difficult thing, for me, as his mother, is knowing that *he* knows about his challenges. He realizes that he relies heavily on medication to function like the rest of the world. And yet, even with the medication, you’ll see that he definitely is not like other kids.

This further underscores why a place like Clearwater Marine Aquarium is so great for a kid like Neil. This is a place where he has seen that a dolphin without a tail is a superstar and that even though she’s not human, she has overcome so many challenges. He is inspired by her story, and this has fueled his own determination to succeed. He loves to see Winter, because she is a constant reminder to him that no matter what is faced in life, it is possible to survive and thrive.

I actually don’t expect anyone except for family members to watch this video all the way through, and like I said earlier, I almost didn’t post it. But if by seeing even a part of it, you glimpse the world through the eyes of someone on the Autistic Spectrum, I hope it will open your own eyes to how a child like Neil operates.

I hope it will open your own eyes to the beauty of a child’s wonderment and awe and the inspiration that a dolphin has sparked in that child’s mind and heart.

Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine Battle Stingrays … and a Dolphin

I have to be honest with you.

I really did not think my kid was going to have a great time at Clearwater Marine Aquarium this year. I wasn’t saying it publicly, because I knew a lot of people were checking here for updates on our visit … and frankly, I was afraid that we wouldn’t have a positive story to report.

That’s because we’d just come off of a raucous week at Disney World, Universal Studios and Lego Land. And let me tell you — we did it ALL. We were up by 6:30 a.m. every day, hitting the ground running (literally — you have to run to Space Mountain if you want to beat the hour-long-or-longer wait) … and there were some days that we stayed at the parks for a full 12 to 13 hours. We didn’t stop.

On top of that, it was my kid’s birthday last week, and he’d chosen his destination celebration place as Disney Hollywood. We got into the “Jedi Academy” that day, and he battled Darth Vader on a stage with light saber moves that (I thought) would have put Luke Skywalker to shame.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention momentous meetings with his favorite super heroes at Universal, Spiderman and Wolverine.

The list was endless.

After such a week, was it even possible that a dolphin could hold his interest? If you put Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine in a ring against sea water animals at an aquarium … who would win the battle of charming the child?

But as soon as we walked into Clearwater Marine Aquarium, I wondered to myself why I had even worried.

The reason that this place is so great for children is that here, your kids do get to interact up close with creatures they normally would never see. We paid an extra $5 for Neil to feed stingrays. At our 10:30 a.m. appointed time, we stood at the tank with everyone else while an aquarium staff member lectured about the myths surrounding stingrays, as well as what to do when you pet them (did you know that they’re slimy because they’re covered in a filmy substance akin to Neosporin, which protects them from infection?) … and how to feed them. Then the moment of truth came: Neil was given two fish to feed the stingrays. I have to hand it to him. I never would have picked up one of those fish, much less put my arm into the water and waited for a stingray to snatch it out of my fingers. But he was such a trooper and waited patiently (albeit nervously) while the stingrays circled his arm and then deftly yanked the fish away.

I thought back to two years ago, when we were at that same tank, and Neil didn’t want to leave. He loved watching the stingrays glide through the water. Their motion was so calming, and they actually do interact with the children, lifting their “wings” to touch tiny fingers dipping into the water.

What also surprised me was how the dolphins were also still just as fascinating as they were a couple of years ago. The tweeting/chirping of Winter and the playful antics of the younger dolphin, Hope, were so pleasant and enriching. Just to be near these beautiful animals is an enriching opportunity.

We actually spent seven hours at the aquarium and the downtown museum filled with movie props.

That’s right.

Seven hours.

What did we do there, you may ask?

Absolutely nothing … nothing but enjoy the interactions with some of the most beautiful animals on our planet.

It reminded me of how we chide our children today about playing outside … how we say things like, “When I was your age, I caught lightning bugs and rode bicycles and played hide and seek and climbed trees. Step away from the video game and go outside!” My child in particular fights this like crazy. So I honestly thought that after the high-tech entertainment we’d experienced at the theme parks, plus the excitement of meeting super heroes and villains alike, there would be no way he’d enjoy his visit with Winter like he did before.

Boy, was I wrong.

Not only did he enjoy it … but he was the one begging for “five more minutes” when I announced it was time to go.

Who knew that stingrays and a dolphin would kick Darth Vader, Spiderman and Wolverine to the curb?

Tomorrow we’ll talk about some of the changes to the aquarium! Stay tuned!

And here’s a photo of Neil with the stingrays.Image


Visit Locked for June 24!

We are so excited to be returning to Clearwater Marine Aquarium!

We will be there on June 24-25 to see our old friends Winter, Hope and Nicholas, plus Bailey the Sea Turtle and a couple of very playful otters.

We’re looking forward to seeing how the aquarium has changed and grown since we were there two years ago, too!

Our plans are to hang out in Orlando for one week first, where we will celebrate Neil’s 11th birthday, and then drive to the Western side of Florida to catch up with our favorite sea creatures. We’ll plan on updating the blog then with photos and our observations about how the aquarium is different!

Thanks to everybody who keeps checking back to see what’s going on. We follow our blog statistics and know that we have visitors worldwide, which is super fun.

Your blog visits bring cheer to our days!

Stay tuned for more to come!


“Dolphin Tale 2” Is Coming Out! (And We’re Returning to Clearwater!)

We are so excited!

We just saw the preview for “Dolphin Tale 2,” which is coming out this fall … and the star of the show is Baby Hope!

Hope is the dolphin you see pictured with Neil in the banner of this blog. On our day for our photo shoot, we’d discovered Winter no longer did the photos, but Hope was the chosen dolphin for that day. Hope is a carefree dolphin — and I know that dolphins are carefree and playful by their very nature, but this dolphin is so full of personality.

When we saw the preview, we gave each other high fives in the theater, and Neil shouted, “We have to go back!”

So yes, we’ll be headed back down to Clearwater this summer to see how the aquarium has changed and also to see any updates with how the second movie was filmed there. It should be tons of fun! We can’t wait to see our “friend” Winter and her friends again.

Stay tuned for more!

Why Obamacare Affects Our Future Visits with Winter

I just wanted to thank everybody who continues to regularly check this blog for updates on when we might be returning to Florida to visit Winter the Dolphin again.

Originally I was planning to make a trip this summer. But because of a continuing issue I have with enormously high health insurance premiums, I have had to postpone. I had worked for three years to reverse a pre-existing condition that was preventing me from receiving affordably-priced plans. This Spring, the doctor gave me a clean bill of health, after I paid out of pocket for a very expensive test to prove to health insurers that the condition no longer existed. And I proved it. And it’s gone. Unfortunately, they singled out an unrelated doctor visit for a tingling arm last September and used that as a bait and switch tactic to deny me once again.

I say this because I want people to realize that there are hard working Americans who can’t just dash off to Florida or anywhere they would like — simply because of the exorbitant costs of health insurance. In this case, that is our true story.

When President Obama’s health insurance reforms take effect this October, I will be able to shop for a plan like everybody else. Under the new law, that plan will not become effective, however, until January 2014.

It is my hope that by then, I will be able to make another trip with my child. We benefited greatly from our visit with Winter and hope that many of you can also do the same. It is truly a life-changing experience — one that every child should have.

Thanks, and check back in January for our plans for a return (hopefully) in 2014!

God bless President Obama.

Cat Plays with Dolphins

This video has nothing to do with our visit with Winter, but I saw it on Youtube this morning. It is a great example of the amazing ways that dolphins interact — not just with each other or with humans — but also with other animals!

After seeing this, I’m motivated to take Neil for another trip to see Winter this summer! Check it out. It’s under 2 minutes.

A New Plug for Clearwater Marine Aquarium’s Needs

Recently we’ve been church shopping, and ironically, something happened during one of these Sunday morning excursions recently that made me think about the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

We were trying out this large mega-church. It is a giant facility, and it has all kinds of programs for kids (which I liked a lot), as well as state-of-the-art technology and cool music (which I also liked a lot).

The problem was that I found out that this place is building ANOTHER large facility across town. The pastor stood up and gave this long sermon about how people needed to give money … and the irony is that he’s not even going to preach there. He’s going to preach at the current place, and they are going to do a satellite feed over to church #2 on a big screen.

And the cost for all of this?

Get ready, because this is going to knock your socks off.

$36 million.

That’s right.

Now, I walked out of there, and other than the fact that I was personally affronted at this obvious waste of resources (which could be devoted to feeding starving people in a Third World country, among other things) … was that there are really great places out there that DO deserve your attention and money.

I was comparing in my mind how this church had every conceivable tool and gadget … and how the Clearwater Marine Aquarium was busting at the seams. Yes, they are caring for animals, not people, and some could make an argument that people are more important. But when you see how these animals touch lives like my child’s? Well, to me, there’s just no contest.

The Clearwater Marine Aquarium is trying to raise funds for a better facility. When we were there in July, they were halfway to their goal — $12 million.

That’s right — by comparison to that church that wants $36 million, this amazing place caring for sick dolphins just needs $12 million. They’ve received about $6 million.

The Hollywood film made it seem like a rich guy had taken care of all of the needs. That was a fictional part of the feel-good story, but I have a feeling that it might have done some harm to the fundraising efforts, because people think the aquarium has been taken care of.

It hasn’t.

So if you do have some extra cash sitting around — and I know it isn’t easy with this economy — but if you can spare a little, please consider giving to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.

And in case you’re wondering … we’re not returning to that church I mentioned. If they can’t devote resources in a responsible manner, I also question whether their teaching is correct. But that’s for a different blog.

I can tell you as a first-hand witness, however, that the Clearwater Marine Aquarium is doing right by the money it is receiving. You can be assured that your gifts will be used to brighten the lives of kids like Neil.

Thanks for your attention.

Winter Camp on a Single Mom’s Budget

Many of you who follow this blog already know I’m a single mom. How, you wonder, did I afford to do this? I’m certainly not rolling in money at the moment.

I thought I should do a post about this in case you’re in the same situation and would love to expose your child to this experience.

First of all, the camp isn’t expensive — about $250 for a full week — Monday through Friday, from 9 a.m. to noon. If you enroll your child for a full day, it goes up to around $400. I know there were parents who had children in the full-day camp, but my observation was that they were Clearwater residents and were using this as part of summer day care while they went to work. My feeling was that Neil had enough of the experience if he attended morning sessions. In the afternoons, we went to the beach, played a round of putt-putt golf, went to an indoor wave surfing attraction and sometimes just cocooned with a good Disney DVD and popcorn. At Clearwater Beach, you’ll enjoy Pier 60, which has family-friendly attractions and a wonderful cafe (great Grouper sandwiches!). And, Clearwater has a wonderful trolley service. For $5 per person, you can ride the “Jolly Trolley” all day and choose your area of the beach for relaxation. Next to the Clearwater public library on the beach is a public pool ($5 admission), and Neil and I spent the afternoon of July 4 there. It was a great break from the sand and surf, and hardly anyone was there!

For Dolphin Camp, there is an extra $50 cost for a back pack filled with snorkeling gear, a beach towel, an underwater camera and sunscreen. You don’t have to buy it, but let me tell you — it’s really worth it, and it’s great to have a back pack and towel as a souvenir (plus, the snorkeling gear is nothing like what you’d find outside of Florida).

As for lodging …I have a lovely uncle who is a New York snowbird. He spends half of the year in Clearwater, and he graciously gave us his home for the week for free, because he was going to be in New York for the summer. That said, if you’re on a tight budget, you might call around to Realtors in Clearwater who handle rental beach properties or even home owners’ associations where snowbirds live, to see if any rent out their homes when they go North.

Because we stayed at my uncle’s home, I was able to save further on meals. This allowed me to have extra cash on hand for souvenir shopping and anything touristy that we wanted to do.

There are plenty of things to do in and around Clearwater as well, but as I’m on such a tight budget right now, I convinced Neil to stick with beach time. The day after our last day of Winter Camp, we drove across Florida to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where for $80, both of us had admission to two days’ worth of out-of-this-world fun.

Rather than fly down, I also chose to take a two day road trip. My AAA membership helped save with lodging. All told, I just spent money for two nights in budget hotels during our 14-hour drive, one night at Kennedy Space Center, gasoline and meals … and the Dolphin Camp admission.

I planned this trip about eight months in advance (starting in October 2011) and saved up a little each month so that I could just pay it without a credit card.

Great fun!

If you want budget saving tips for your trip, let me know.

If I as a single mom can do it, I promise that you can, too!