Trying to keep pace with princesses at Disney World and Potter at Universal Studios, SeaWorld has bet its future on making penguins from Antarctica at home in the middle of a former swamp. It was no picnic. Designers could fake the glaciers and icicles. But they had to lower temperatures in the birds' habitat to a permanent 30 degrees and figure out how to pump in 20,000 pounds of snow a day. And, of course, there's the penguin poop problem.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin opened Friday at SeaWorld Orlando. It spans more than 4 acres and contains more than 250 tuxedoed creatures, one of the biggest penguin displays in the world.
The attraction marks the largest, most ambitious expansion in SeaWorld's nearly 50-year history. It's also the park's first foray into creating a fully immersive land from scratch, the latest trend at major theme parks.
"We have done something that no one has done before,'' said park president Terry Prather. "Walking through it, I get goose bumps.''
Like Disney's New Fantasyland and Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter, SeaWorld went to great lengths to recreate the look and feel of Antarctica, a continent 8,197 miles away from subtropical central Florida. Ten- to 50-foot faux glaciers boast 2,500 glass icicles. Expedition Cafe resembles a researcher's mess hall with a Quonset hut and rec center as dining rooms. A family-friendly ride takes visitors through the icy world of Puck, an animated gentoo penguin.
Known for its Shamu whales, SeaWorld chose penguins based on their broad appeal and strong family bonds relatable to humans. Who hasn't been enchanted by March of the Penguins or Happy Feet?
"Penguins remind people of toddlers,'' because of the way they walk, said Brian Morrow, creative director for the project.
SeaWorld took cues from its nearby rivals in designing the attraction, nearly three years in the works. It devoted a gift shop to penguin merchandise, from penguin snow globes and sweatshirts to stuffed penguins and personalized penguin-shaped reusable cups. In a nod to Universal's wildly popular Butterbeer, SeaWorld sells South Pole Chill, a vanilla-infused Coca-Cola drink made exclusively for the park.
Officials aren't saying how much they spent on Antarctica, but they call it a game-changer for the 40-year-old park. It comes about a month after SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., which owns 11 theme parks including two other SeaWorld locations and Busch Gardens in Tampa, raised $810 million through the sale of public stock.
Antarctica was in the works long before SeaWorld landed on the New York Stock Exchange and was separate from the initial public offering, Prather said. But penguin power wasn't lost on investors during the first day of trading April 19 when penguins, along with an otter and lemur, strutted across the trading floor. Since then, the stock has soared 40 percent.
Antarctica will likely boost park attendance by 5 to 10 percent, said Dennis Speigel, president of the Ohio-based consulting firm International Theme Park Services. That's higher than a single-ride attraction but far from the 36 percent surge in the first three months after Universal opened its Harry Potter area in mid 2010.
"This is going to be a major hit for them,'' Speigel said. "There's no question SeaWorld is banking a lot on this.''
He estimates the ride alone, which uses unique trackless technology, cost $40 million to $50 million.
Focusing on penguins, several species of which are endangered, was a large part of the appeal for SeaWorld and its ongoing conservation efforts. It was also a lot of work. Nearly all of the penguins, which used to be on view from behind glass in a smaller exhibit, were raised from birth by park handlers who nurtured the chicks at home. They are messy — polar researchers have calculated that Adelie penguins have a poop firing distance of up to 16 inches — and demand a lot of social interaction.
The 6,125-square-foot habitat area houses gentoo, king, rockhopper and Adelie penguins that move freely between the rocky terrain and 170,000-gallon pool. Making them comfy takes 20,000 pounds of snow a day, blown in from snowmaking machines installed above the exhibit. Engineers dim the lights to mimic the South Pole seasons.
To fight the poop problem, employees melt the snow daily and drain it into the park's sewer system. And the foul smell? Powerful air ventilators and high-tech scrubbers, rather than disinfectants, keep the area smelling more like the ocean than a colony of birds.
"We don't want it to be sterile,'' Morrow said. "This is their home. We're just visiting them.''
Guests can get within a few feet of the sometimes screeching penguins or watch them swim from an underwater viewing gallery. It would be tempting to linger for hours except for the sub-freezing temperature, a shock to sun-worshipping visitors in shorts and T-shirts. (SeaWorld doesn't loan people parkas, creating an effective means for moving along crowds.)
Officials estimate visitors will spend an average of 25 minutes in the attraction, including the three-minute ride offered in mild or wild intensities, depending on the occupants' desires. Riders follow Puck the penguin as they careen in saucer-shaped vehicles on a trackless system designed to make guests feel like they are sliding over ice floes.
Wait times are expected to be upward of two hours, Morrow said, with express passes not yet available. Twitter reports from opening day said the wait was as long as five hours.
Antarctica substantially builds upon the success of last year's opening of TurtleTrek, a 3-D film projected on a wraparound 360-degree dome, and the One Ocean killer whale show that debuted in 2011. The park has seen attendance steadily grow since 2010, when numbers declined after the death of a trainer who was killed by a bull orca at the end of a performance.
Theme parks generally don't release attendance figures but numbers from AECOM, which publishes an annual theme park attendance report, put SeaWorld Orlando's attendance at 5.2 million for 2011, the most recent available. That's below the 7.7 million for Universal's Islands of Adventure but ahead of the 4.3 million for Tampa's Busch Gardens.
Prather, the park's president, said the addition of Antarctica is more about furthering SeaWorld's mission to entertain and educate people about marine animals than competing with other theme parks, which continue to one-up each other with new attractions. If successful, the bottom-of-the-world concept could be expanded to SeaWorld's other parks in San Diego and San Antonio, Texas.
"We have always told stories that connect people to the natural world,'' he said. "It's a natural progression to take people to places they have never seen before.''
Placing an emphasis on penguins is a good bet, said Katherine Chakour, spokeswoman for the Florida Aquarium, home to eight warm-weather African black-footed penguins. The flightless birds have been a huge hit among guests since they joined the Tampa attraction in 2006.
"People are very fascinated with penguins,'' she said. "They are interesting animals and something you don't get to see very often, especially in Florida. Not to mention they are adorable.''
Staff writer Sharon Kennedy Wynne contributed to this report. Susan Thurston can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 225-3110.