Summer is getting a late start this year at Orlando’s theme parks.
Except for SeaWorld’s Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin — where it’s still winter — the major new attractions aren’t officially open yet.
Within weeks, though, we’ll be introduced to Evac, a new Autobot, on the Transformers ride at Universal Studios; Cragger the Crocodile King and Laval the Lion Prince at the World of Chima at Legoland; and a huge new exhibit built around the retired space shuttle Atlantis at the Kennedy Space Center. The just-announced Springfield (from The Simpsons) at Universal Studios isn’t finished yet, but the first section — Fast Food Boulevard, where guests can buy a Krusty Burger and Duff beer — opened a week ago .
Coming later this year: Princess Fairytale Hall, the next-to-last piece of the Fantasyland expansion at the Magic Kingdom; and the rest of Springfield, including a new ride.
Right now, though, the star of the Class of ’13 is the new ride and penguin habitat at SeaWorld. On opening day a few weeks ago, people waited as long as five hours to share the icy 30-degree air of Antarctica with a colony of penguins.
So that’s where we’ll start.
The emerging trend: Theme parks don’t build stand-alone rides, they build lands or areas with a ride surrounded by similarly themed shops, cafes, scenery and even specialty drinks. That’s the case at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. This new area, which opened May 24, has educators who answer questions about penguins and their habitat; touch screens with educational information; a rock wall with carvings and information about 18 species of penguins; a shop with umpteen kinds of penguin souvenirs; the Expedition Cafe, which serves food from several countries that were signatories to the original Antarctica treaty; and the now-requisite specialty drink — Vanilla Southpole Chill, a vanilla-infused drink by Coca-Cola.
The attraction is more about Antarctica than penguins — SeaWorld has had penguins for decades, but the world needs to care about and protect Antarctica, said Brian Morrow, corporate creative director. When it came time to update the penguin exhibit, Morrow said, “We said, let’s talk about where they came from. Antarctica is a bigger story. We’re going to the bottom of the planet.”
The centerpiece is a ride that shows visitors the world through the eyes of Puck, a fictional gentoo penguin, before depositing them in a real penguin habitat that mimics conditions in their native Antarctica, including chilly temperatures and lighting that mirrors the cycle of sunshine.
The queue starts in faux ice caves where we meet Puck, on video, hatching from his shell. The temperature starts to drop and the wind comes up. It will get colder and windier, gradually acclimating visitors for the 30-degree penguin habitat at the end.
Guests choose between the “mild” and “wild” expeditions. The “wild” ride spins, twists, rolls and pitches; the “mild” ride turns gently and moves forward. In truth, even the wild ride is pretty mild — its creators wanted the attraction to be family-oriented. Queasiness factor: low.
The vehicles slide across the trackless floor of a large space where light bounces off ice walls and a large chandelier of ice shards, streaking the room with color.