SeaWorld Orlando's newest attraction turns the planet on its side. Just look at the globe at the entrance: The South Pole is at the equator with a "You are here" designation.
And there are glacial reefs standing right here in sunny Central Florida, next to a sign that says "Welcome to the bottom of the world." This is Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin, the largest expansion in SeaWorld Orlando's 39-year history. It opens to the public today.
"The continent of Antarctica is so remote, so far away that it's extremely difficult to get there," says creative director Brian Morrow. "Most humans will never have a chance to visit."
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So SeaWorld brought Antarctica to the humans. The attraction, dripping with atmosphere, includes a major ride that leads to a penguin habitat, themed eating facilities, a gift shop and other stops.
The centerpiece ride follows the story of a penguin named Puck. There's a penguin-see, penguin-do element to the attraction, built basically atop the old Penguin Encounter attraction of the park.
"We see Puck when he's young, and he doesn't really know how to move on the ice yet so our vehicles will behave in the same way. They have these emotion reactions and physical abilities like the juvenile penguins," Morrow says. "If he spins and slides around we'll copy that as well."
Puck matures, and the vehicles learn, too.
"By the end of the ride, the vehicles are acting like super-fast, speedy superhero penguins as we dive under water for the first time," Morrow says.
The attraction puts a motion-based simulator on a trackless ride system, a theme-park first. The round vehicle, which seats two rows of four passengers, will glide over the floor in various patterns and interact with other cars.
"Each time guests come back, they can see something new," Morrow says.
When the adventure is over — after surviving a storm and Puck becomes our hero — passengers disembark directly into the penguin habitat. It's a nippy 30 degrees Fahrenheit here, and the birds are close enough that you can get wet from their wings flapping in the water. They climb and swim and stare a lot. There's a short plexiglass partition and a camouflaged "safe space" that divides birds from humans.
In the next room of the habitat, the penguins are seen behind a 20-foot window that showcases their darting, swimming abilities. They are built for underwater speed in the wild. It pays to be swift when looking for food or trying not to become the food of predators, Morrow says.
Antarctica's restaurant, Expedition Café, revolves around the scientists who study at the South Pole. It features walk-up service for Asian, Italian and American foods including an homage to one-time SeaWorld staple, Chicken 'n' Biscuit restaurant.
Also on the menus: an Iceberg wedge (get it?) and fortune cookies that are chocolate-dipped and contain environment messages. There are also grab-and-go options, Morrow says.
Inside the cafe will be hydroponic gardening used in the restaurant.
"Right now we're growing basil," Morrow says.
There are outside, shaded eating areas as well as an indoor option, a Quonset hut named the Sub-Zero Recreation Center. Inside are relics from the scientist and the SeaWorld design team. (Hidden gem: Penguin Peeps.)
Buy, buy birdies
Brace yourself. Antarctica's gift shop is not built into the ride exit. You'll buy souvenirs in a free-standing building called Glacial Collections, which sits across a plaza from the ride.
Inside is an array of penguin merchandise, from flipper slippers to cell-phone covers to princess penguin dresses to plush Puck dolls. One Puck version is with his family and is inspired by a scene in the ride's pre-show. A vintage-looking T-shirt salutes Penguin Encounter.
Guests also can buy the Cup That Cares, which can be used for refills on the day of purchase and subsequent visits. The cost is $9.95, and $1 of that goes to the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund. The cup's use is monitored by an enclosed chip, so when it's refilled at Antarctica's South Pole Beverages outlet, it will tell the carbon savings of each individual user.
"It knows the cup, and it knows you," Morrow says.
The Create a Cup That Cares is a version that can be customized. For $15.95, guests can assemble a penguin cup decked out with accessories such as sunglasses, bow ties, shopping bags, cameras, mohawks and a Shamu ice-cream bar.
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See more of the penguin stars of SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica at OrlandoSentinel.com
Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin
Where: SeaWorld Orlando, off BeachLine Expressway, southwest of Orlando
When: Grand opening is today. Park opens at 9 a.m.
Cost: Included in SeaWorld admission. A one-day pass is $89 ($81 for ages 3-9).