ORLANDO – Standing right below a massive glass screen that offers a close up view of penguins happily swimming, Jack Hanna said he was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to be at SeaWorld Orlando for the opening of the theme park’s newest attraction – one devoted to recreating a very special part of the world, rarely seen by tourists.
“I’ve been to Antarctica,” said the host of “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown,” “and this is the closest anyone will get to experiencing it.”
On Thursday, Hanna took part in a media preview of the new attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins, which officially opens today at the start of the Memorial Day Weekend. In a section of the theme park that now is home to artificial icebergs that surround the ride itself, it aims to recreate the wonders, beauty and natural habitat of Earth’s southernmost continent and the South Pole, a place where 98 percent of the land is covered by ice and a place where there are no permanent human residents.
It is a continent where between 1,000 to 5,000 people live throughout the year, working at research stations. But mainly Antarctica is home to vegetation, algae and animals – including polar bears and penguins.
That’s a key aspect of Antarctica that SeaWorld highlights at this new attraction – since the park imported quite a few penguins that now live there, providing charm and entertainment for the audiences that come to see it.
But the attraction also provides something else that Antartcica has in abudance: frigid cold. At one point, the temperatures barely rise above 30 degrees.
As SeaWorld noted in a media description of the ride, “New technologies combine to create a freezing – but dry – climate, allowing guests to spend time in the penguins’ amazing world.”
It was, Hanna said, an impressive achievement and an attraction he was thrilled to have gotten to see.
“I think it’s just great,” he said.
SeaWorld spent several years developing the new ride, even sending teams to visit the continent and do research on what it was like.
The new ride, located inside the theme park, starts at those imposing icebergs – a visual delight that nevertheless stands in the midst of Central Florida’s heat and humidity. It has the look of Antarctica, but at least outside, not yet the feel of its arctic temperatures and climate.
Once inside, guests are given dining options at the new Expedition Café, where American, Asian and Italian meals are available in a mess hall setting, along with outdoor seating under canvas-type sails and two Quonset huts.
There’s also a gift shop, Glacial Collections, selling everything a penguin lover might want – including items about the newest character to be introduced at SeaWorld: Puck, a baby penguin who leads the guests on a series of animated adventures in the wilds of Antarctica.
The focal point of the new attraction, though, is the ride itself. Walk inside those majestic icebergs, and guests get the option of boarding either a “mild” or “wild” mobile simulator ride. The Mild Expedition is a more gentle approach for families with little ones, while the Wild Expedition provides higher levels of intensity as the guests are taken through the continent. They feel the strong winds blowing across the glaciers – and watch Puck’s adventures on video screens.
“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,” said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment’s creative director. “When he takes his first swim or barely escapes danger, our guests will feel as if they’re right there with him.”
When the ride comes to its end and guests step off, they find themselves standing with a colony of penguins – Adelie, gentoo, king and rockhopper – in their new habitat. It contains rocks, water and snow – and, of course, frigid temperatures kept at 30 degrees. As the coldest theme park attraction in Orlando, it let’s the guests see the penguins close up – as long as they can brave the cold.
Some may opt instead to walk into the climate-controlled viewing area where they can watch the penguins swimming from that large glass screen.
Antarctica aims to recreate the beauty and wonder of this frozen land, while also offering an educational element for children who can discover more about how penguin colonies operate and how these little families learn to survive.
“On this adventure, we learn that we’re a lot like penguins,” Morrow said. “We find we need each other and our families to survive.”
As part of that educational campaign, SeaWorld also sells a souvenir cup in the Glacial Collections shop, created by the theme park giant in collaboration with Coca-Cola. Known as The Cup That Cares, it’s a reusable cup shaped like a penguin. Guests can customize their own cup from a variety of different designs, and then use it outside at the Antarctica’s Coca-Cola Freestyle dispensers, which provide a lesson in recycling.
There’s a radio frequency identification chip embedded in each cup, that tells the guests how they’re being environmentally responsible by choosing to refill and reuse that one cup rather than throwing out numerous ones.
SeaWorld also plans to donate $1 from each Cup that Cares purchase to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, a non-profit foundation that helps protect wildlife around the world.
“We’ve taken our guests and fans on astounding journeys,” said Terry Prather, president of SeaWorld Orlando. “But no one has ever experienced what we’re bringing to Orlando this year. The first-of-its-kind ride, the cold, the wind, the thrills and dangers of Antarctica, coupled with getting up close to penguins in their freezing world, is something only SeaWorld can do.”
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