Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin—The Largest Expansion Project in SeaWorld’s History
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin encompasses shops, a restaurant, and a beverage station, as well as a dark ride and an extensive penguin viewing area, all carved into a canyon of faux ice and rocks. At the Empire’s center is, what else, the South Pole, here represented by a sort of barber pole with a reflective globe on top. Pleasant enough during the day, the area is particularly compelling after dark with the white and periwinkle-blue hues of the ice peaks illuminated both from within and without.
The centerpiece of the theme area is the combination Empire of the Penguin dark ride and live penguin exhibit. For the ride, you can choose a mild or wild version. Concerning the latter, it spins and bumps, but to call it wild is a bit over the top. Both mild and wild renditions glide through the same scenes. We preferred the mild ride because it’s easier to see the various scenes if you’re not spinning around, plus the “thrills” you’re missing hardly surpass Dumbo.
The experience begins with a preshow introducing Puck, a newly hatched gentoo penguin. After the preshow, you come to a junction where you have to make your mild versus wild decision. Next you board an eight-person “Antarctic saucer” and get under way. The saucer’s movements are controlled by a one-of-a-kind, motion-based, trackless ride system developed by Oceaneering International, the same company that created, among others, the ride system for The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man at Islands of Adventure. Each battery-powered saucer consists of an upper and lower platform. You sit atop the upper platform, which provides up-and-down and swaying movements. The base (lower) platform allows omnidirectional lateral movement. The overall effect is that of randomly floating.
You drift through a convoluted ice cavern bathed in more colors than Ben & Jerry has flavors. Projections of Puck chronicle his growth and development leading up to his first leap into the sea. His timing is bad, however, and he’s hardly splashed down before being beset by a leopard seal. Naturally, he survives, but the fish sandwich he was craving will have to wait.
As You Progress Through the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin Ride Temperature Drops to About 30°F
An interesting aspect is that, as you progress through the ride, the temperature continues to drop until it bottoms out at about 30°F, the ambient temperature of the live penguin habitat at the end. Presumably SeaWorld could have separated the penguins from the people with a plexiglass wall, allowing the viewing area to be heated, but then guests might linger overlong observing the colony. Trust us—if you board the ride wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops, you will not spend half the day admiring the penguins.
Disembarking from the ride, you enter the penguin habitat, housing almost 250 birds, including gentoo, king, rockhopper, and Adélie penguins. You can view the tuxedoed residents either above or below water. The habitat is by far the highlight of the overall experience. Lighting is consistent with light at Antarctica for any given time of year. Thus, if you visit during the summer, which is winter in Antarctica, you may find the exhibit a little dark for your tastes. You can stay and watch as long as you want or, more to the point, as long as you can stand the cold.
The exhibit is fun for the penguins too—they love it when you do jumping jacks. The length of the experience varies according to how long you stand shivering in the habitat, but the preshow, the ride, and 10 minutes viewing the penguins would put the total time at about 20 minutes plus. Despite the impressive technology in play, the ride’s placid pacing and poor computer graphics can’t live up to the expectations raised by the awe-inspiring exterior, and the attraction’s best element will be blown past by many warmth-seeking riders. If you wait more than 20 minutes for this attraction, you’ll likely end up disappointed.
Touring tips for Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin
If you’re inordinately fond of penguins, it’s probably worth it to bring a sweater and a jacket (you can store them in a locker when not in use). For the rest, you’ll most likely surrender to the cold before you’re really ready to leave, but that’s the way SeaWorld planned it. The ride draws huge crowds as soon as the park opens, and there’s lots more competition early in the day for the Empire of the Penguin ride because, unlike the Kraken and Manta coasters, the ride is available to all ages and sizes. To avoid a long wait, arrive 30 minutes before the park opens, admission in hand, and ride first thing. From the park entrance, bear left around the Manta lagoon past the Manta Aquarium and the Pelican Preserve. At the T-intersection, go left, and then take your first right along the back side of the Dolphin Theater. You’ll see Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin ahead and on your right. If riding Mako is more important than Antarctica, ride it first, and then head for the penguins. After the penguins, ride Manta and Kraken.
If you encounter a wait longer than 30 minutes when you arrive at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, your best bet is to try again after sunset. Waits during the evening hours average 25 minutes or less.
By zannaland (SeaWorld Orlando Anarctica: Empire of the Penguin) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons