1. Life & Culture

SeaWorld's Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin puts you inches from penguins

The largest expansion in SeaWorld's history opens Friday, taking visitors on a high-tech ride across an ice floe, then sending them into a chilly colony of 250 penguins playing just inches away behind a low rock wall — no glass partition.

The Tampa Bay Times got a sneak peek at the ride and realm created for the gentoo, king, Adelie and rockhopper penguins that have taken up residence at the new attraction, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.

You might be tempted to reach for the birds as they chill out in the 6,000-square-foot habitat, but signs warn you not to try. You'll also be tempted to hang out forever to watch the curious creatures splash and interact — until you realize you're freezing. It's 30 degrees!

To create the frigid realm in steamy Florida, designers have added faux glaciers, an underwater viewing area, a high-tech ride, a restaurant and a gift shop.

"This is a major attraction for SeaWorld and largest expenditure they've ever made," said theme park expert Dennis Speigel of the Ohio-based consulting firm International Theme Park Services. "The vehicles alone on that ride are estimated at $900,000 a piece, so we are looking at an expansion in the $40- to $50-million range."

In the new ride, visitors follow Puck the penguin as they careen in saucer-shaped vehicles that combine a mobile simulator platform and a trackless navigation system to make you feel like you're sliding over ice floes in a giant Roomba. There's no set route, making the experience different each time. You also can pick the intensity, mild or wild.

Surprisingly, the ride queue isn't as interactive as most new rides these days. The line snakes around and is shaded by 50-foot glaciers that are studded with blue acrylic for the glassy look of ice, Pyrex icicles and concrete embedded with tiny glass beads that shimmer in the sun. Express passes are not available yet for this ride, and SeaWorld creative director Brian Morrow estimates waits will be upward of two hours.

Once you step inside, it gets progressively colder as you move along. The first stop is a drying room that sucks out the humidity as you watch a two-minute movie featuring the hatching of Puck the animated gentoo penguin, who will be the star of the show.

The next room lowers the temperature farther as you choose your ride intensity. There is no height limit, so all passengers need is the ability to sit up on their own, meaning anyone over about 18 months old can ride it.

And the "wild" ride isn't exactly a thriller, more like a sleek saucer that spins and shimmies, with motion simulators, wind and sound adding to the action. The technology is top-shelf, with smart sensors that enable the cars to detect each other and interact along the journey, just like penguins. There are 32 different possible paths, so chances are you won't get the same ride twice.

After the three-minute ride, visitors step into a colony of some 250 penguins of Antarctica that noisily honk and waddle through the snow. Only a rock wall 18 inches tall separates visitors from the flightless birds, and in some sections you can get splashed as they swim by.

So, with that many penguins, how does it smell? Not bad. Air scrubbers work on a molecular level, Morrow said, to take the bird odor out. Plus, every day they melt the snow, scrub down the habitat and pump in a fresh 10 tons of snow.

When you get too chilly in the penguin habitat, the next stop is a huge underwater viewing area. Dozens of penguins at a time go shooting by, looking more like a flock of birds underwater than they do on land.

The gift shop, as expected, is all things penguin but with added flair. A huge video screen behind the counter plays footage of penguins taken in Antarctica, and there are smaller screens embedded in the walls around the store. The store stocks scores of plush Pucks, as well as penguin shirts, cups, keychains and our favorite, silver penguin wine stoppers.

The "mess hall" for eating is themed like an expedition Quonset hut with scientific backpacks and maps and tools lining the walls of both inside and outside seating.

Dining in Antarctica is like a mall food court, with Asian, Italian and American comfort food, each with kids meals for $5.99.

In preparation for the opening, SeaWorld raised prices: Single-day tickets are now $89; an annual pass is $149.

Speigel estimates the investment will pay off with a 5 to 10 percent increase at the gate, where typically a new attraction only adds a 1 to 4 percent bump.

"Penguins are enormously popular and charming," Speigel said. "People like them. So if you had to choose something for that project, they chose the right animal."