Side Order: The penguins are calling at SeaWorld Orlando


At the live-penguin habitat, which approximates daylight hours in Antarctica, it’s feeding time for kings, Gentoos, Adelies and rockhoppers. (Peter Mandel)
August 1, 2013

I don’t know whether you’re aware of this, but we penguins have our pride. In my case, I’m no run-of-the-mill bird. I’m a king penguin — bred for blizzards at the bottom of the world.

Call it retirement if you want, but one day in late May, I found myself stationed in Florida of all places, flipper to flipper with 250 of my fellow king, Gentoo, Adelie and rockhopper penguins. Just what under the sun was going on?

A new theme park attraction, that’s what. Namely, SeaWorld Orlando’s much advertised “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.” The longtime home of Shamu the whale and the Turtle Trek experience, Sea World now has a southern strategy: to simulate, in the words of a park brochure, a “dangerous voyage to the coldest and windiest continent,” where ice can grow more than 9,000 feet thick and temperatures sink to 129 degrees below zero.

I recently got a look at the SeaWorld Antarctica “passport” that the park’s been handing out to help hype our new habitat, along with the high-tech ride that blows gusts of wind at visitors while whirling them past imitation glaciers and beneath giant icicles. “The coldest attraction on earth,” brags the document (which I was pleased to note has an attractive penguin motif instead of the usual eagle). “Join the epic voyage.”

Details: SeaWorld Orlando

Visitors entering “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin” find themselves surrounded by artificial glacier walls embedded with tiny tumbled glass balls to imitate the sparkle of real Antarctic ice. I don’t know who’s in charge of counting these things, but the attraction reportedly has about 2,500 Pyrex and glass icicles. Many of these mini-sculptures are hand-blown.

Those lining up for the Antarctica ride weave through cavelike compartments that get chillier and chillier to toughen tourists up for the type of temperatures that we chubbier birds enjoy. Next, they get spun and jolted on trackless vehicles that move like round Zambonis, while they’re treated to the onscreen saga of a cartoon waddler named Puck and his family as they try to make the best of harsh Antarctic conditions. If they can still stand up after that, they’re dropped off at the main attraction: live penguins.

That’s us, of course. Our habitat here, which is bigger and more dramatically sculpted than at most zoos, is kept, I’m pleased to report, at a pleasant 30 degrees, and our LED lighting is supposed to approximate seasonal night and day in Antarctica itself. At certain times of the year, like late spring, we sleep until 10:30 a.m. or even later, so — fair warning — no flash pictures allowed until then. The best part, in my opinion, is the underwater viewing area, where you stand and stare at a two-story pane of glass while we swim like crazy, perform nearly impossible spins and show off even more than most seals or otters.

Although this isn’t always totally fulfilling for us in an artistic sense, it beats trying to scrape out a living at the real South Pole. Brian Morrow, “Empire of the Penguin” creative director and lead designer, said that the whole project really isn’t supposed to be referred to as a ride, or even an attraction. “This is a realm,” insisted Morrow when I caught up with him at the park. “It’s nature-based, not fantasy, and fully immersive.”

Morrow points out that even the ride vehicles behave like animals. “At first,” he said, “when you get on board, they wobble a little, like the baby penguin in the movie, as if they’re unsure of themselves.” Not to mention the fact that, according to a park fact sheet, this is the world’s only theme park attraction with a “trackless ride system that allows guests the choice of picking the intensity level, coupled with a variable ride path.”

Morrow hasn’t taken any research trips to Antarctica the continent, but he and colleagues were so determined to fine-tune the attraction (sorry: realm) that, he said, they hired cultural scientists “from Philadelphia” to find out why humans love penguins so much. The verdict? “It’s because they move like our kids,” Morrow told me. “Like toddlers.”

Well, enough about park management. Not to sound arrogant, but, judging from the crowd-choked opening day, it was really our penguin antics that people were coming to see. They clapped and whistled as we swam upside down and skidded around on fake ice floes and tundra. We were the stars of the hour. Visitors snapped pictures as we were fed herring and krill, and then they headed straight for the Expedition Cafe (which looks a lot like McMurdo Station) to order plates stacked with South of the Equator Baked Chicken ($11.49) and the Iceberg Wedge ($8.79).

Even the cafe Coke machines have pictures of penguins on them. Energetic penguins. Positive penguins.

Maybe, come to think of it, there are worse places to spend one’s golden years.

Mandel is an author of books for children, including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House).

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