When Sea World opened in December 1973, it was a strategic move. The chain already had two parks under its belt in California and Ohio. After the success of the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World, the decision to open in Central Florida with a steady stream of tourists flocking down I-4 was a no-brainer.
The success of Sea World is mostly attributed to it being a unique family brand. In the early days, there were no attractions in the park the entire family couldn’t experience together. That was clearly by design, as infants all the way through grandparents being able to experience every single attraction together and no matter how you slice it – that’s good for business.
As competition in Orlando grew and other parks started adding more rides, specifically thrill rides, Sea World Orlando kept up with Mission Bermuda Triangle. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, simulators were all the rage. The Bermuda Triangle was the park’s first ride of any kind of ride and a fairly advanced one at that.
Keeping up with the competition has always been a unique challenge for Sea World with both of its major competing neighbors being in the movie studio/special effects business.
Journey to Atlantis opened in 1998 and while it is an extremely well themed boat ride, the small roller coaster bend at the end of the attraction was truly ground breaking – as Splash Mountain and the Timber Mountain Log Ride already pioneered a hybrid water ride many years prior.
When Kraken opened in 2000, it quickly became known as one of the world’s best roller coasters because of its floorless design and its high thrill elements. Manta opened in 2008 and became the first (and still) only flying coaster in the state of Florida. Still, none of these attractions were the world’s first and could put Sea World Orlando on the map as being a “world’s first” destination for a new attraction, until now.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin opens at Sea World Orlando this week and is truly a game changer – not only in Orlando, but the entire world. The largest expansion in Sea World’s history includes a new penguin habitat, unique food offerings and a new trackless dark ride giving guests an experience that is unparalleled anywhere on the planet.
From the moment you step through the archway made of ice, even in the heat of an Orlando summer, your brain makes you feel a little cooler. Nassal, based out of Orlando and who did all the scenic elements on a number of big attractions like The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, created all of the giant ice glaciers in the courtyard of this new mini-land.
The majority of the new land is composed of the new ride and penguin habitat which is housed in a huge building that looks like you are navigating through the caverns of a glacier. The ice formations both inside and outside are truly exquisite and seem like they have a personality all their own. Once guests are inside, they are treated to a pre-show introducing the hero of the ride, Puck, a new penguin who has just hatched.
All of the animation for the attraction was created by Nth Degree Design and they took special care to make sure all of the penguins didn’t look too cartoony. They worked with animal specialists for the look of Puck, in particular, to make sure that the coloring and markings were not only easily identifiable, but also accurate.
After the pre-show and winding through a small queue of gorgeous ice hallways, guests are given an option on if they want a “thrill or chill” experience. The ride vehicles, created by Oceaneering Entertainment, who also did the ride vehicles for Curse of DarKastle in Busch Gardens Williamsburg, are programmed like a simulator on a moving trackless ride vehicle – a world’s first! Guests can choose if they want to have all the bells and whistles of a ride system that can rock back and forth, left and right – movement that is supposed to mimic that of Puck the penguin. Or, they can choose the chill version where the vehicle moves along the track, but the motion base is turned off.
One thing worth mentioning – this truly is a family attraction. Sea World made an extremely wise conscious decision – nearly anyone can go on this attraction. If you want the wilder version? You need to be 42 inches tall to be able to handle it. However, if you still want to experience the milder version? As long as you can sit up right in your own seat belt? You are good to go, meaning pretty much anyone from two-years-old on up is able to ride. If you are not feeling the ride, but still want to get up close and personal with the penguins, there is an alternate route for you too.
Once you decide which kind of experience you want, riders are broken up into groups of eight and brought into a pre-show room that looks like a small ice cave with a window into the glacier. The window is a rear-projected screen that re-introduces Puck to the audience and gives us a virtual glimpse into the inside of the cavern ahead.
Above the entire experience, nothing tops this. Out of any reveal of a ride vehicle anywhere on the planet, Antarctica knocked this moment out of the park. Once the pre-show doors open, there is a ride vehicle waiting for you on the other side – just for you. While the load area contains four bays, the way it is laid out, you can only see your vehicle and the gorgeous color changing cavern behind it. That moment is truly breath taking.
The ride itself is fairly tame in terms of show scenes, Sea World doesn’t believe in adding unrealistic effects or making their animals, even the computer generated ones, do anything that wouldn’t seem natural in the wild. The ride vehicles dance around each other and explore different parts of the cavern through movie screen projection and lighting effects complimented by a beautiful one-of-a-kind score.
The ride’s finale is the grand reveal of actual penguins in the new habitat Sea World has built for them. The ride literally unloads into their new home, which, compared to their old digs, is like comparing the Ritz Carlton to a Motel 6.
Come back next time when we will take a closer look at the rest of this new mini-land and experience more of the penguin habitat, new food and beverage offerings, merchandise, explore great details and interview some of the people who helped create this game changing attraction.