After 18 months with no penguins on public display, SeaWorld Orlando opened its new attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, on May 24, just in time for the summer crowds. While the new attraction includes a penguin habitat where guests can see the comical black-and-white birds frolicking in the snow and water, it’s also added a short ride to the mix.
I got a sneak peak at the ride vehicles at the IAAPA amusement industry convention in late 2012. Their unique feature is working on a trackless system, which means they can change up the experience each time you ride. There are actually 32 different versions. Better yet, you select a “mild” or “wild” version, depending on your party’s make-up. Traveling with small or timid kids? The mild version is as gentle as a baby carriage. Prefer a little more excitement? Wild will spin and bounce you, although it’s still pretty low key compared to thrill rides like SeaWorld Orlando’s roller coaster, Manta.
I’ve ridden both the mild and wild versions, both of which take you through the story of Puck, a cute little virtual penguin, as he’s born and grows in Antarctica. You follow him through his world, including a harrowing seal chase, and then comes the ride’s big moment: stepping into the real penguin habitat, with nothing between you and the animals but a low fence.
The original SeaWorld Orlando penguin exhibit separated guests from the animals with a glass wall. Now, you’re actually right inside the 30 degree habitat, close enough to get a splash of icy water if the birds decide to jump or dive in front of you. They’re delightful to watch, but you probably won’t last too long unless you bring a sweater.
Outside of the main habitat areas is a glass-walled underwater viewing spot where you can stay as long as you wish without worrying about the chill. It’s similar to the underwater areas for the park’s orcas and dolphins, and you’ll often find a curious penguin interacting with its audience.
The new Antarctica area also has a cafeteria-style restaurant serving American, Italian, and Asian cuisine and a gift shop with penguins in almost every imaginable form. However, the ride and habitat are the obvious draws, and the attraction is already racking up waits of two to three hours or more. It’s a long wait for a short ride, but your heart will be instantly warmed despite the frigid temperature when you step into the penguins’ world and see the birds swimming and diving in the water and waddling across the snow.