Just as it did with Turtle Trek, SeaWorld Orlando is again educating and entertaining its visitors about a particular species by telling a story through the point of view of one animal. This time, though, the experience is more immersive, including a restaurant and other themed areas.
The new Antarctica section of the park opens today (May 24) and its centerpiece ride, Empire of the Penguin, takes visitors on a journey with Puck, a baby penguin. Much like last summer's new TurtleTrek, Empire of the Penguin appeals to its audience by showcasing one animal's battle against nature and then allowing guests to observe the animals in their habitat.
This formula seems to work well, combining cutting-edge technology with the thrill of seeing rare animals up close. TurtleTrek introduced guests to Orlando's first 3D 360-degree dome theater in 2012. Empire of the Penguin offers guests another industry first: wireless, trackless navigation for cars in the attraction.
Each simulator ride car allows guests to choose one of two levels of exploration – Wild Expedition or Mild Expedition – for various degrees of ride intensity. Designers say each version also has multiple variations for a feeling of unpredictability.
“When our little hero penguin learns to waddle and slide, we’ll feel what it’s like as the car moves and reacts to the storyline. When he takes his first swim or barely escapes danger, our guests will feel as if they’re right there with him,” said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment creative director.
I rode the mild version of Empire of the Penguin at the media preview of Antarctica and was enchanted by it. The smooth ride offers plenty of surprises and moments to "ooh" and "ahh" during Puck's journey. Morrow said kids are drawn to the brilliant colors and playing hide-and-seek with Puck. My 8- and 10-year-old are eager to experience it for themselves. (Can't get enough Puck? The character meets guests outside the ride.)
Deb Wills rode the Wild Expedition and compared the motion of the ride vehicle to that of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom. She said the movements are mostly gentle, but there is a bit more spinning, so those sensitive to motion sickness may want to stick with the mild ride.
Empire of the Penguin is being touted as an adventure that the whole family can experience together, regardless of ride preference. As the mother of a child who does not like thrill rides, I certainly appreciate this planning. There is only one ride queue, so families remain together until it splits just before guests listen to the pre-show and board their simulators. Of course, the vehicles dock at the same location in the penguin habitat and families can see the amazing little birds together. Child swap also is available for Empire of the Penguin.
In addition, the content of the ride is appropriate for all ages. In one scene, Puck is chased by a leopard seal and the music is bit ominous. It's not nightmare material, however. "This is not a scary ride, though there are real animals that behave in real ways," Morrow said.
Any guest who is able to sit unaided can ride Empire of the Penguin. Children who are shorter than 48 inches must be accompanied by another guest. To ride the Wild Expedition, children must be 42 inches tall.
The penguin habitat at the end of the ride really does give guests a bird's eye view of these rare flightless wonders. You'll see about 250 Adelie, gentoo, king and rockhopper penguins swimming, preening and possibly nesting. And you will feel like a penguin, too, with temperatures that hover around 30 degrees Fahrenheit in the enclosure.
SeaWorld educators, such as Senior Aviculturalist Michelle Hartman, line the path in front of the penguins to answer guests' questions. She explained that a new Penguin Up-Close tour will begin in June. The one-hour experience allows smaller groups of guests to interact with the penguins, even petting them and posing for photos, for an additional charge. (Currently, penguin interactions are only available with the Behind The Scenes Tour.)
Finally, visitors can warm up in an adjacent underwater viewing room. The three levels allow for multiple vantage points. This room also will host groups of children, typically Scout or school groups, who book sleepovers.
The Antarctica section also includes a new counter-service restaurant, Expedition Cafe. Visitors here have a choice of three different cuisines: American, Italian and Asian. Adults will find salads, sandwiches and hot entrees in each restaurant that start at about $9 each. Kids' meals were selected with crowd-pleasers in mind -- fried or baked chicken, hot dogs, spaghetti, lasagna, orange chicken, teriyaki chicken, or pepper steak -- and cost about $6 each.
Hector Colon, executive chef and director of culinary operations, explained that Expedition Cafe also will offer to-go options because "you never want to be without food in Antarctica." These will include snacks such as beefy jerk and trail mix, plus a make-your-own peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwich kit for kids.
The nearby South Pole Beverage station has three Coca-Cola Freestyle machines that feature SeaWorld's exclusive flavor, South Pole Chill. It's been compared to a cream soda, and I have to agree with that assessment. Delicious! Guests have the option of purchasing a Cup That Cares for $9.95 or they can create a Cup That Cares -- much like a Mr. Potato Head for penguins -- for $15.95. Both versions contain RFID chips that allow the beverage stations to recognize the user's name and keep track of the number of refills, which it records as a measure of reducing the guest's carbon footprint. In addition, $1 of the purchase price is donated to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund.
Antarctica offers both indoor and outdoor seating areas. Those who opt for air conditioning in the Sub-Zero Recreation Center will see a location themed to the scientists who live and work at "the bottom of the world," as SeaWorld bills Antarctica.
Of course, there is a penguin gift shop in this area, Glacial Collections. Surprisingly, Empire of the Penguin does not exit through the shop. At Glacial Collections, guests will find penguin-themed merchandise of all sorts, including plush versions of Puck. At the time of the official opening, though, there weren't many items with Antarctica logos, save for some T-shirts.
After almost three years in the making, Antarctica is poised to be another cool attraction at the park in more ways than one. Antarctica is included with regular admission to SeaWorld Orlando.
The previous post in this blog was Disney Pixar's Monsters University inspires merchandise, eye-opening deals .
The next post in this blog is My family's experience at Walt Disney World's Monstrous Summer All-Nighter.