Friday, May 25, 2018
Travel

SeaWorld's Empire of the Penguin ride may leave you cold

ORLANDO

Before losing its sheen like an iceberg with a bad case of global warming, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, the new attraction at SeaWorld, is an innovative how'd-they-do-it dazzler. The centerpiece of the park's new tundric landscape, the spinny "dark" thriller pushes the boundaries of ride technology — and keeps creative pace with those theme park foes across Interstate 4.

Well, for a while at least.

Sure, SeaWorld has a bunch of rides, but it's mainly in the Shamu biz. Go for the fish; stay for the Kraken. And yet, Empire of the Penguin does two things that are decidedly Disney in vision. First off, as guests enter the fictional world of baby Puck the Gentoo penguin — and escape 90-degree-plus Florida outside — they are acclimated to increasingly cooler climes: 60 degrees, 40 degrees, and finally 30 degrees, which allows the 250 real penguins, revealed at ride's end in an indoor habitat, to feel as if they never left the igloo.

How is everyone at SeaWorld not getting frostbite? It's 21st century magic, I tell you!

Indeed, the cool-down is a slick trick. It's not jarring; in July, it's awesome. It's also immersive, as the queue makes you feel more and more like, well, frozen fowl. There is all manner of computer-generated animation telling Puck's adorably fuzzy story (alas, more on that in a second). At one point, your li'l penguin pal plays peek-a-boo with you, which ought to help sell an extra 500 Puck plush dolls a day in the inevitable gift shop.

Finally, you are ready to board your ginormous sci-fi curling stone. That is, if Mr. Spock were a curling gold medalist for Vulcan. They're calling this trackless, motion-based ride system state of the art, and they're not kidding. I'm a certified theme park nerd, and these round, gliding vessels — dreamed up by Oceaneering International, which also created Universal's Spider-Man and Transformers rides — are unlike anything I've ever seen or experienced. The ride's first few seconds are the flat-out best, as these omnidirectional cars, using dead reckoning to cross the paths of each other, float and spin and dance, a high-tech ballet that's as soothing as it is fun.

Riders have the option to vote for "wild" or "mild" adventures, but let it be known that wild IS mild. The actual mild? Well, it doesn't boogie much at all. Without those glorious dance moves, Empire of the Penguin is toothless. The three-minute-plus ride soon devolves into a series of large, relatively unadorned screening rooms, as Puck navigates his world both above the ice (happy) and below (look out for that hungry seal).

After such a fantastic, goofy-grin beginning, the rest of the ride is a startling letdown, mainly because the brilliant technology of the ride system is ultimately undercut by the bargain-bin animation in the ride itself — like those Disney knockoff 'toons on the shelves of Walmart. (Who needs Tangled when you can watch Girl's Got Hair for only $2.99!)

Puck's evading the jaws of a predator should be thrilling, dangerous — enough to gleefully freak out your children — especially with the capabilities of the ride car's movement and the size of the enveloping screen. But all immersive elements of the ride are gone by the end. They cut corners in the wrong place. After all, this is Orlando, the most vicious theme-park scrum in the world. You have to be better, smarter, cooler at every turn.

It's hard to fault a ride that unloads into a jaw-dropping splash zone of hundreds of real penguins gamboling about. (Here, they also re-create sunrise and sunset for the birds, another cool trick of acclimation.) And kudos to SeaWorld for its biggest expansion in 50 years; there's a lot to recommend about the entire Antarctica experience. But with wait times currently around 120 minutes, Empire of the Penguin, for all of its stunning innovation, will leave a lot of riders cold for all the wrong reasons.

Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

 
Comments
Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Dr. Beach ranks Caladesi Island No. 7 on list of country’s best beaches

Caladesi Island’s "crystalline quartz" sand and "sparkling clear" water left an impression on Dr. Beach, who ranked it in his annual list of the country’s top 10 beaches.Dr. Beach, or Dr. Stephen P. Leatherman, is a professor and director for the Lab...
Published: 05/24/18
In New York City, following in David Bowie’s footsteps

In New York City, following in David Bowie’s footsteps

NEW YORKThere are few artists who merit a true pilgrimage — a concerted attempt to walk in the footsteps of greatness — but if there’s one luminary worth traveling for, it’s David Bowie.With the final stop of the Victoria and Albert Museum’s experien...
Published: 05/24/18
8 ways to get on the water in Tampa Bay if you don't own a boat

8 ways to get on the water in Tampa Bay if you don't own a boat

According to the old wisdom, the two happiest days of a boater’s life are the day they buy a boat and the day they sell it. There’s also an argument to be made for the day when a generous friend buys one. Boating, from the sun to the bre...
Published: 05/22/18
Despite Walt Disney's wishes, you can now buy alcohol at every Magic Kingdom restaurant

Despite Walt Disney's wishes, you can now buy alcohol at every Magic Kingdom restaurant

Well, you did it millennials. As of this month, every sit-down restaurant in the Magic Kingdom now serves alcohol. It was a big deal back in 2012 when the world’s most visited theme park broke with Uncle Walt’s mandate to keep alcohol ou...
Published: 05/21/18
Updated: 05/23/18
Philadelphia’s American Revolution Museum winning battle for tourists

Philadelphia’s American Revolution Museum winning battle for tourists

Associated PressPHILADELPHIA The Museum of the American Revolution is a year old and officials say it has landed a decisive victory in capturing tourists’ attention in a city with lots of revolutionary competition. In honor of its first birthday Apri...
Published: 05/17/18
Tired of the Smithsonian? These small, quirky D.C. museums are worth a visit

Tired of the Smithsonian? These small, quirky D.C. museums are worth a visit

WASHINGTONWashington is known for its museums. But venture beyond the Mall, which is home to four of the 20 most-visited museums in the world, and you’ll find plenty of smaller, quirkier institutions. Want to learn about great inventions, the history...
Published: 05/17/18
SeaWorld joins Busch Gardens in offering free beer this summer

SeaWorld joins Busch Gardens in offering free beer this summer

SeaWorld is joining its sister park, Busch Gardens, in offering free cups of beer this summer. Guests 21 and up can receive up to two complimentary 7-ounce beers per visit at Mama’s Pretzel Kitchen Patio in the park starting Friday through Sept. 2. T...
Published: 05/16/18
SeaWorld’s water park Aquatica opens Ray Rush slide propelled by water jets

SeaWorld’s water park Aquatica opens Ray Rush slide propelled by water jets

SeaWorld’s promise to add new rides instead of animal entertainers is building steam as a new ride has opened in the company’s Aquatica waterpark in Orlando.Ray Rush, a new slide with an open air half-pipe that resembles a manta ray, opened a day ear...
Published: 05/14/18
Updated: 05/16/18
Active itineraries: More vacation packages combine travel and fitness

Active itineraries: More vacation packages combine travel and fitness

Diane DanielIf your resolution to get in shape still hasn’t quite gelled, consider an active vacation where fitness is factored into your trip. The options are all over the map, and they’re becoming ever more energetic."The move from more passive and...
Updated one month ago
Disney brings back After Hours tickets for Magic Kingdom this summer

Disney brings back After Hours tickets for Magic Kingdom this summer

Walt Disney World will bring back its separate ticket event called Disney After Hours that lets visitors into the Magic Kingdom on select nights this summer. It’s a chance to enjoy lighter crowds during the busiest time of the year at the world’s bus...
Updated one month ago