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January 3, 2014

Tips for visiting Walt Disney World and SeaWorld when it's cold outside

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Florida might be a subtropical paradise, but it does get cold here at times, as this week's front proves. And, though "Frozen" might be a big winter hit in the theaters right now, you don't have to spend your days in the Orlando theme parks experiencing the same.

How will the cold affect your visit to Orlando theme parks such as Walt Disney World and Seaworld? When the mercury dips below 50, some things change even if others remain the same. Here are a few things of which to be to be aware:

** Water parks will close. Disney's Typhoon Lagoon already is not open to guests because of scheduled maintenance, and Disney's Blizzard Beach also will be closed today. Same goes for SeaWorld's Aquatica. Guests who had planned to visit the Disney water park still can enjoy the adjacent Winter Summerland miniature golf course, though.

** Some animals will stay indoors, but others will not be deterred by the cold. At Disney's Animal Kingdom, a three-hour process brings all animals indoors each night to climate-controlled areas. In the morning, they are given a choice whether to venture out or stay warm and cozy. When Florida has a cold snap, such as this one, extra precautions also are taken in the outdoor habitat, such as adding heating elements, for example. So, riding Kilimanjaro Safaris will not be a bust, but you're unlikely to see the Komodo dragon from the walkway along its outdoor habitat because it is sensitive to the cold. Same goes for some other animals, too.

At SeaWorld Orlando, many of the marine animals already thrive in cooler waters, such as the orca whales, sea lions and dolphins, so these temperatures don't affect their performances. The shows will go on! And although the penguins in the new Antarctica attraction reside in a climate-controlled area, guests just might feel like they've stepped onto the South Pole, too, no matter how chilly it might be outside.

** Steer clear of water rides, such as Splash Mountain or Journey to Atlantis, or the Splash Zone at the Shamu show. These places may be open but do you really want to spend the rest of your day shivering from wet, soggy clothes?

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** Seize the opportunity to drink plenty of hot chocolate or warm coffee in the theme parks. SeaWorld has the best deal for hot chocolate, with its refillable souvenir mug. It works the same way as its drink cups -- after a one-time purchase of the cup, all refills are 99 cents. At Disney World, coffee lovers can get their Starbucks fix at new locations on Main Street, U.S.A., in the Magic Kingdom and near the Fountain of Nations in Epcot. Additional stores are planned!

** When vacationers arrive at the theme parks, it's easy to get caught up in the excitement and the anticipation of their favorite attractions. But when it's cold, adjust your schedule accordingly. Plan to visit indoor attractions in the morning or evening, when temperatures are coolest. As the day warms up, spend more time outdoors for a more pleasurable experience.

** If you're staying in the Disney resorts, don't forget that some, like the Fort Wilderness Resort or the BoardWalk Inn, offer enticing fireplace settings in their main lobbies. Others, such as the Polynesian Resort or the Beach Club, also offer nightly beachside fire pits complete with s'mores that also can be fun family escapes from the rare Florida cool-downs. The cozy evening gatherings around the fire can be the perfect way to wind down after a long day in the parks, too. Who knows, if you're outside at a fire pit, you might even catch a glimpse of a fireworks show, as well.



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June 27, 2013

SeaWorld's Summer Nights offers old favorites, plus a few surprises

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Summer officially began last weekend, and with it, SeaWorld's Summer Nights festivities. Through August 11, the theme park stays open later hours and offers two popular nighttime shows and a character dance party.

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A perennial favorite, Sea Lions Tonite has returned, and my family and I think it's one of the best shows at SeaWorld. Talented sea lions, otters and a walrus parody favorite SeaWorld shows and attractions with a little help from their trainers. The popular show is laugh-out-loud funny, and even includes an Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin joke and a gentle poke at The Mouse, too. Be sure to arrive at least 30 minutes before show time to get a decent seat. The wait passes quickly, though, because a mime hilariously interacts with the audience, keeping everyone entertained.

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Shamu Rocks, SeaWorld's unique combination of a rock concert and a killer whale show, has been updated for the 2013 season. The audience still will experience a high-energy show with catchy, classic-rock music and colorful lighting. The hair-band rocker with the Shamu guitar returns, too, and the animal trainers do more dancing than at the One Ocean daytime event.

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The change, though, comes at the end of the park's signature show, when fireworks have been added behind the stadium and in view of the spectators. The pyrotechnics certainly blend in with the concert feel of the show and are beautiful behind Shamu Stadium. Unfortunately, this addition is at the expense of the Reflections: Fireworks and Fountains Show Finale at Bayside Stadium. That water, lights and fireworks show is not being offered this summer, which is a disappointment in some ways because it was an enduring crowd-pleaser and one that my kids enjoyed seeing every chance they could.

Shamu Stadium typically opens 45 minutes before the show, and lines will form on the ramps, so get there early. The splash sections seemed to fill up first. Pre-show entertainment consists of live, camera-captured scenes of audience members, which never fails to amuse.

With SeaWorld open until 10 p.m. during the summer, guests have the opportunity to ride the new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at night. That section of the park is beautifully lit up after dark and the queue did seem shorter when we were there. Guests can cap off their evening with a dance party with the SeaWorld characters from 9 to 10:30 p.m. in the Village Square (adjacent to Guest Services).

On July 4, there will be special additions to the Summer Nights lineup. Fans of the retired fireworks show will be excited to know that a patriotic Reflections show is scheduled for that night only. Beforehand, the SeaWorld Celebration Singers, an ensemble group of singers and a nine-piece band, will perform a variety of popular music, including traditional marches and patriotic tunes. The concert starts at 9:30 p.m. and the fireworks are at 10 p.m.

Also, in celebration of the national holiday, SeaWorld will be hosting a Bayside Cookout from July 3 through 6. Along the Bayside pathway, guests can purchase a one-third-pound bacon cheeseburger, footlong hot dogs, BBQ pulled pork sandwiches, kids' meals and five flavors of Dippin Dots. Bayside Cookout will be open 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m., with the end time extended until 8 p.m. on July 4.

SeaWorld is open an extra hour -- until 11 p.m. -- the Fourth of July.

DISCLAIMER: I was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando during its Summer Nights kickoff. My opinions are my own, and this did not influence my review.

June 6, 2013

SeaWorld's new Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin - Mixed Reactions

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My family was crazy enough to brave the crowds at SeaWorld on Memorial Day -- and we even got in the two-and-half-hour line to experience the new Empire of the Penguin attraction in the new Antarctica section. Unfortunately, I was overly optimistic about what we would experience and what my kids would enjoy.

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A two-hour-plus queue winds back around Pacific Point Preserve, where the sea lions live. SeaWorld was prepared for the interest in its new attraction with lines roped off, large umbrellas offering ample shade from the Florida sun, and free cold water stations. Still, asking my 10-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter to stand in line that long was asking for trouble. So, I stayed in line and my husband took the kids to burn off some energy in Shamu's Happy Harbor.

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With a bit of good timing, they rejoined me as we entered the ride building. Unfortunately, that's where things fell apart during our experience. The ride had "technical difficulties" no fewer than five times, adding more than 30 minutes to our wait. And unlike at Walt Disney World, where cast members are efficient about informing and directing guests when something goes wrong, the SeaWorld team members that day didn't do much of either.

Although the lack of information during an extended theme-park wait certainly is frustrating for anyone, it really put a damper on the experience for our family. My husband had another afternoon commitment, so he left before riding, and my cautious son was so leery of the ride after all its stops and starts that he refused to go on it at all. A team member did offer everyone in our ride vehicle a one-time front-of-the-line pass so we could experience Empire of the Penguin again without the frustrations.

Still, I can't help but wonder why SeaWorld chose not to perform soft openings of the ride -- as many theme parks do -- to work out any bugs in the attraction. This would have been especially important before holiday weekend crowds converged there.

My daughter, who did ride Empire of the Penguin with me, enjoyed the tale of Puck the penguin and was mesmerized by the multi-colored icicles. She was not intimidated by the scene when the leopard seal chases Puck, and she seemed wowed by the reveal of the penguins in their habitat. She certainly would go again.

When we stepped off the ride, we met my son in front of the swimming penguins. A cast member led him to the habitat and even offered to stay to with my son, though I felt comfortable with him walking the short distance from the ride queue by himself. We all took a quick peek at the penguins -- neither of my children were willing to stay in the 30-degree Fahrenheit temperature for more than a few minutes in their summer outfits!

My daughter mentioned she thinks SeaWorld should offer the use of heavy coats, as they do at Gaylord Palm's ICE! each year. Visitors could bring their own hoodies or fleece jackets, but I think that's a bit unrealistic at a Florida theme park in the nine hot months of the year. Of course, there is the underwater viewing area of the penguins in an adjacent room that is warmer.

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One interesting aspect of the penguin habitat was that the lighting was different from when I saw the exhibit at the media preview three days beforehand. A publicist explained that's because SeaWorld simulates the levels of sunlight at Antarctica at various times of the day.


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After we exited Empire of the Penguin, we opted for an early dinner at Expedition Cafe, the new quick-service restaurant in the Antarctica area. My son and I sampled the Orange Chicken and brown rice from the Asian counter, and we both liked it. At the media event, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Operations Hector Colon had explained that orange chicken is the top pick for kids at Asian restaurants, and we could understand why. My daughter tried the Shamu Kid's Meal of a chicken wing and French fries at the Stateside counter and ate it all, though it wasn't her favorite meal experienced in the park.

Afterward, we sampled the new drink from Coca-Cola, South Pole Chill, which is a SeaWorld exclusive. My children don't drink much soda and weren't sold on the flavor, which tastes like a light cream soda. However, as a Diet Coke addict, I really liked it! The nearby Glacial Collections store sells refillable cups that are like the penguin version of Mr. Potato Head, and these certainly appeal to kids, my own included.

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Children also might enjoy meeting the character Puck, who appears throughout the day across from Empire of the Penguin. And beginning this month, SeaWorld is offering a new Penguins Up Close tour, which allows guests to pet real penguins and have their photos taken with the birds. The price is $59 for adults and $39 for kids ages 3 to 9.

Maybe I was expecting too much from an untested attraction on one of the busiest theme-park days of the year. I hope that, once the mechanical issues are resolved, we can return again and perhaps both my kids will have a more engaging experience at this attraction like they've had repeatedly at the dolphin and Orca sites at SeaWorld. Until then, though, I imagine they will choose to chill at some of their other favorite attractions and shows in the park.

May 24, 2013

SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin opens

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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.

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"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.

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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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Food and beverage
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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.

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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.

Merchandise

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.


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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.

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About Antarctica

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to A Mom and The Magic in the Antarctica category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

Aquatica is the next category.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.