SeaWorld introduces Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin

SeaWorld Orlando’s new Empire of the Penguin, which has its grand opening Friday, is a fun family ride that tilts and twirls gently through an artist’s impressionistic re-creation of Antarctica and ends up in an icy penguin habitat where a visitor could easily watch the antics of the real thing for hours -- if only it weren’t a bone-chilling 30 degrees.

Fortunately, there’s another spot just a short walk away -- and 25 degrees or so warmer -- where people can watch penguins swimming, some leisurely, some shooting crazily through the water like a balloon that’s losing air.

Members of the media got a preview of the ride on Thursday.

The ride is part of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, an attraction that represents SeaWorld’s biggest expansion ever. The attraction also includes a shop that sells all sorts of penguin paraphernalia; the Expedition Cafe Marketplace, which offers food from some of the countries that were among the signatories of the original Antarctic Treaty; and educational aspects such as touch screens and staff members who can teach about penguins and Antarctica.

"SeaWorld has had penguins for many years. The penguins are awesome," said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld’s senior director of creative development. When it came time to talk about updating the penguin exhibit, Morrow said, "we said, let’s talk about where they came from. Antarctica is a bigger story. We’re going to the bottom of the planet."

Like Manta, a SeaWorld roller coaster that weaves around aquariums housing various species of rays, Empire of the Penguin combines a ride with animal habitat and environmental education. It replaces the old Penguin Encounter attraction and uses the same colony of penguins with some changes.

At the end of the ride, there are about 240 penguins -- king, Adelie, rockhopper and gentoo -- that visitors can watch from a few feet away as long as they don’t mind the cold. It’s hard to tear yourself away.

A gentoo plays the lead in the video production, a fictional but adorable just-hatched ball of fluff named Puck whose life the ride ostensibly follows.

But only part of the ride is narrated and it’s not always clear how aspects of it tie into a penguin’s life -- not that that necessarily matters. For example, midway through the ride, two vehicles pair up and stay together to the end. Apparently that’s a reference to penguins’ tendency to stick together and take care of each other.

Or consider one of the spaces the ride passes through, with shimmering ice shot through with flashes of color and an ice-chandelier-like sculpture hanging from the ceiling.

"The intent of that room is it is a cavern of light," said Mike Denninger, corporate senior director of rides and maintenance. "You think of rainbows and light and colors that come off light refracting through ice. That room is a creative interpretation of the natural world."

When we return to video and a more literal story line, Puck is a young adult. He dives off an ice cliff into the water, where he is chased by a leopard seal.

SeaWorld says the technology of the ride is the first of its kind. The vehicles are open cars that hold eight riders and slide around on the "ice" like hockey pucks at times. The route is trackless, so two rides aren’t necessarily the same.

"You could ride it again and again and get all different experiences," Denninger said.

Before you board, you get your choice of a "mild" or "wild" ride -- the idea is to make it appropriate for families and all ages, Denninger said. On the "wild" ride, the vehicle rolls, pitches and spins; the mild ride is much smoother and doesn’t have much motion that isn’t forward. However, even the wild ride is gentle and unlikely to induce queasiness.

It’s not until the end of the ride that visitors meet live penguins, who stand on icy rocks or swim, seemingly gaping right back at the shivering humans. The lighting is timed to the natural cycle of light in Antarctica, where it is winter, so much of the time it is dim inside and flash photography is not allowed. In winter -- Antarctica’s summer -- there is light as much as 20 hours a day.

Even before visitors get on the ride, they are gradually being acclimated to lower temperatures. From the time they enter the faux ice caves and go through the queue, they contend with wind and cold. By the time they take a seat in the ride vehicle, temperatures are in the 50s, and that doesn’t take into account the wind chill factor, which makes it seem colder.

At the end, riders disembark into penguin habitat that is kept at 30 degrees. Because of the acclimation, the temperature isn’t a shock to the system, but you won’t want to hang around for long.