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Ride review - Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld Orlando

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Published: May 23, 2013 at 7:23 AM

ORLANDO -- Twenty-one years after SeaWorld blended dark rides and live animal exhibits to take visitors to the North Pole with Wild Arctic, SeaWorld Orlando's completed the journey to the other side of the world.

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin brings SeaWorld visitors to the South Pole for a unique ride adventure through the lives of a colony of penguins. Built amidst SeaWorld's largest-ever capital expenditure, Antarctica is set within an impressive vista of rock and ice, under a rockwork icon of a mother and child penguin.

Antarctica ride entrance at SeaWorld Orlando

Upon entering the ride, you begin your adventure with a two-minute pre-show, introducing you to a Gentoo penguin couple, standing guard over their egg as a storm approaches. It's the last egg in the colony to hatch this year, but will it hatch in time? The answer comes quickly -- yes, and we meet the center of our attention for the rest of the ride, young Puck the Penguin.

After this introduction, we're ushered into another waiting area, where we can select a "mild" or "wild" adventure. You'll be riding in unique trackless motion base vehicles from Oceaneering, the same firm that created the ride vehicles for Universal's Transformers and Spider-Man and Disney's Indiana Jones rides. The difference between wild and mild comes down to how much the ride vehicles spin on your adventure through the ice caverns of Antarctica.

On its preview evening, almost everyone selected "wild," leading to a much longer wait for that option. Keep in mind that SeaWorld's definition of "wild" is pretty mild, especially when compared with those much more intense motion-base rides. Still, if you're not a fan of what my wife calls "jiggle box rides," such as Star Tours and the like, or if you have any upper-torso strength issues, you should opt for the mild adventure. You'll see the same scenes as the "wild" riders -- in fact, you might get a better view of the ride's detail, as you won't be spinning gratuitously through much of it.

Once your party has selected its adventure option, you're ushered into yet another small waiting area, much like the final wait area on The Simpsons Ride (and Back to the Future before it). From there, you step into the eight-person saucer that will take you through the ride.

You begin in a room that struck me as a '60s-mod twist on a cavern, more like being inside a lava lamp than a cave. But as your vehicle slides out onto the floor, you're reunited with the baby Puck, who will soon grow up, lose his fuzz and face his first major life challenge -- diving into the sea water for the first time.

But as we wait for that, we're off into the most visually impressive scene of the ride -- a massive ice cavern, filled multiple colors, hanging icicles and dominated by a massive frozen waterfall. Mild riders will get to linger with the detail, while the wild riders shriek as they spin around the room. As you exit into the next scene, "fire" blasts from the cavern walls.

Then it's on to meet the grown-up Puck, on his way to a destiny with the sea. It's here that we encounter the conflict in the ride, and given how mildly SeaWorld's treated the narrative up until this point, that moment of conflict surprised everyone in my vehicle. Sensitive children might be frightened by Puck's moment of peril, but I found it engaging -- a moment of suspense that enlivened the ride's narrative.

I don't think I'm playing the spoiler by revealing that our young hero survives his test, but the highlight of the attraction is yet to come -- a chance to spend time with a colony of live penguins, in the ride's post-show exhibit.

Penguins of Antarctica at SeaWorld Orlando

As you approach the unload platform, you'll hit a blast of frigid air, and might notice your unload ride attendants wearing parkas and wool caps. It's cold in here -- nearly 30 degrees. You're on the penguins' turf now. The lights are kept low in late May, to simulate the penguin's native Antarctica habitat. The brutal chill will likely force most visitors to hurry along, but pack a jacket so that you can linger with these animals. Watching the penguins dive into the water and blast through it, just inches away from you, ought to provide more of a thrill than any spin through an ice cave, anyway.

Here's SeaWorld Creative Director Brian Morrow, telling me a bit about the ride's story, and its unique ride system, which allows anyone who can sit upright to ride:

And here's a POV video of the entire experience (minus the waiting, of course):

Ah, the wait. What we don't yet know about Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is how long those wait times will be. The ride did not soft-open before its media premiere, and on its preview party night, the ride experienced several short downtimes, diminishing its capacity. Given the slow pace of dispatch last night and again this morning, it's hard for me to see how SeaWorld gets this ride operating at full capacity in time for its public debut Friday morning.

For most theme park fans, their enjoyment of a ride depends as much upon how long they waited as what they experienced once on board. If SeaWorld can dispatch a quartet of ride vehicles every minute or so, as designed, fans will find this a fun ride. But if dispatch happens once every 10 minutes or more, this is going to be a long wait for the payoff. We'll see what happens this weekend, and beyond.

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Readers' Opinions

From Rob Pastor on May 23, 2013 at 7:50 AM
Robert: Thanks for the article & video. It looks to be a very enjoyable family level experience.
From Dominick D on May 23, 2013 at 8:14 AM
From what I saw in the video, what a letdown. Wasted opportunity here. I'm in no rush to see it.
From 198.181.11.138 on May 23, 2013 at 8:57 AM
That was a ride summary -- how about a review? Should we fork over the cash to go see this sucker? Thanks.
From Robert Niles on May 23, 2013 at 9:03 AM
Does this ride sound/look good to you? If so, go. If not, don't.
From 24.42.129.33 on May 23, 2013 at 9:07 AM
Thanks for the great review! Can't wait to go back to SeaWorld now!!
Kellie Gleason
From Daniel Etcheberry on May 23, 2013 at 9:17 AM
Thank you Robert for posting your own video of the ride. I was waiting to see the first pov video on YouTube this weekend, but you gave us the pleasure in advance.

I'm more excited about the area will real penguins than the ride itself.

One question: does a long sleeve shirt be enough for the cold temperature or do I need to take a sweater with me?

From 85.150.173.168 on May 23, 2013 at 9:34 AM
I was looking very much forward to this but from what I've seen it's mayor let down. How does the south pole look like a disco? And is all we see from the life of Puck his birth and the encounter with a sea lion? That's it? What about all the talk about family and excitement and realism? What about the ride vehicle moves like a penguin? How do they turn around like idiots all the time?

The best part is the animal exhibition. It looks awesome and worth to visit (for me), but not the ride (for what I've seen now). Is there a way to skip the ride?

From 76.84.61.6 on May 23, 2013 at 9:59 AM
This is great. It's like an EPCOT ride of old: it entertains, educates, and inspires. Thanks Seaworld! And thanks Robert for the review and POV!
From David L. on May 23, 2013 at 10:11 AM
The ride seems really different. The score sounds great and some of the scenes look fantastic. How correlated was the vehicle to the screen scenes( especially the conflict)? Also, will you be visiting Turtle Trek and wild arctic? And one last question, how was the smell?
From Robert Niles on May 23, 2013 at 10:23 AM
No smell in the ride, but for the post show? Well, let's just say I hope you like the smell of fish. It's as strong as the air is cold!

As for that cold, it would be unbearable in short sleeves. You could stick around a few minutes in long sleeves. But if really want to enjoy watching the penguins, you'll need a warm jacket. Consider the cold not just for the penguins' comfort, but as a brutally effective way for SeaWorld to keep a crowd of people moving through and out of the area. ;-)

From 108.82.216.57 on May 23, 2013 at 11:02 AM
I was bored to tears. I'm sure the real little ones will appreciate it.
From Jacob Sundstrom on May 23, 2013 at 11:10 AM
If this is all SeaWorld has to answer to Universal and Disney, well, it's going to be a long summer.
From James Rao on May 23, 2013 at 12:36 PM
Looks like a fine whole-family addition to the park. Not quite the ground breaking attraction some folks expected, but a winner nonetheless.

I am definitely looking forward to visiting as part of a larger Orlando adventure in 2014/2015.

From Rod Whitenack on May 23, 2013 at 1:09 PM
Well, that wasn't at all what I expected. I don't know what to say. All that work, money and technology were put into the service of this? I expected a journey through the ice caves and ice flows of Antarctica, and what I got was one big room of lava lamps and Christmas ornaments bookended by two CGI short films? Do they think that lots of spinning will make it more exciting? I had big dreams about this experience from watching all the making of videos, but the reality looks like a huge disappointment. If I waited three hours for this I would never go back to SeaWorld again. I really hate to be negative about this, but the big cost of visiting a theme park for a new ride like this one has to deliver more than that to make it worth it. I also thought SeaWorld promised that riders would float through LIVE penguin areas (making each ride a unique experience) which doesn't appear to happen at all. That doesn't happen until after you get out of the vehicle.
From 198.181.11.137 on May 23, 2013 at 2:57 PM
Doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement from the only guy on the site who has been on the ride. Too bad, was really hoping the Mouse would have another challenger in the market to keep the pressure on. Looks like it's all on you Universal.
From 173.170.103.20 on May 23, 2013 at 4:18 PM
This is an excellent ride review, Robert. It looks like SeaWorld has succeeded in spades in delivering a fun family ride, which was their stated goal when they announced this attraction more than a year ago. For those complaining it's not zippy enough or too boring, the park has two and a half roller coasters, one being what many consider the best in Orlando -- Manta.

I'm curious, though. For two years in a row, SeaWorld has delivered nifty, ambitious additions with great theming. What do they plan for an encore? Did you ask? I, for one, would love to see them do a classic dark ride with animatronics. They certainly have the creative team in place now to deliver large-scale attractions, a skill set that was missing for years and years under previous management.

- Brian

From 98.208.184.252 on May 23, 2013 at 4:46 PM
It looks cheesy and cheap graphics. I had hoped for so much more for such an investment. Oh well. Universal has my vote so far this century!
From Daniel Etcheberry on May 23, 2013 at 6:57 PM
Will SeaWorld provide a jacket?

Robert, does the ride's vehicle look difficult for transfer?

From Manny Barron on May 23, 2013 at 8:42 PM
This ride sounds awesome and a great addition to Sea World Orlando. POV and YouTube videos don't do justice to ANY theme park attraction, plus the thrill and surprise of experiencing something for the first time is pretty cool, so thats why I don't watch ride videos. Just enhances that one first ride ever on an attraction.

Hopefully Sea World does something like this to its San Diego(and much closer to where I live) theme park. Journey to Atlantis and Manta both made the trip out to the West Coast after debuting in Orlando.

30 degree in the post ride?!? Wow, what a contrast to the usual 95-100 degree Orlando summer days.

From Kelly Muggleton on May 24, 2013 at 1:30 AM
My favourite park!! Can't wait to get to see it!

One questions, as per Wild Arctic you can skip the ride and just go to the animal exhibit - can you do this on Antarctica? (If I want to see my feathered friends without an hours wait perhaps...)
Thanks!

From Nick Orlando on May 24, 2013 at 4:27 AM
Robert can we expect a full review of the entire realm of Antarctica from you?

I think this ride looks great for the whole family young and old! I hope SeaWorld continues this trend of bringing us to see realms of our planet that most people cannot travel to!

From 98.82.165.205 on May 24, 2013 at 7:53 AM
Boring. I feel bad for the penguins who should've got a more upgraded habitat. This would've been better as a walking tour with more penguins and less misuse of technology.
From 216.189.215.212 on May 24, 2013 at 7:51 PM
Arrived at sea works at 8:15 this morning to see wht all the fuss was about after the opening just before 9 100s descended on the q and what a q it was. We managed to get pretty close to the front given the length of it and yet we were still waiting an hour 3 times before 10:10 when we finally got on it we heard announcements saying there was tech difficulties but to be fair it didn't take them long to sort it. Here goes I thought ....... I'm still waiting for an element of surprise ..... Massive let down in my eyes no real story to it just a car that u can choose to wild or mild but to be honest there is nothing wild about it. 2 mins if that and it was all over and into the freezing penguin area which is ok and worth a look. Sat in the hotel eating dinner tonight and I heard a young girl about 6 telling staff she had waited 5 hrs to get on it and no it wasn't very good...... The best thing about sea world is the shamu show worth the admission fee alone forget Antarctica unless u like standing in massive as for nothing
Haley and mark from uk
From Robert Niles on May 24, 2013 at 8:29 PM
Hi Nick,

Other than the ride/exhibit, it's a counter service restaurant and a shop. That's it. The decoration in the area is nice, and I've posted some photos, on the Antarctica listing page and on our Twitter feed. But it's not really enough of a full "land" to say much more about it.

From 50.10.234.140 on May 25, 2013 at 12:18 PM
My family of three were there for the opening ceremonies and even being in the front line was a two hour wait. It was horrible you spin around in a cheesy hard plastic cave with lava lamps. What a complete waste of time and money.
From 69.241.93.245 on May 25, 2013 at 12:56 PM
We took the ride yesterday afternoon, when the wait was around 2 hours. As it was so hot we were provded plenty of cold water but with no access to restrooms it was a balancing act how much to drink. We chose the Wild ride where we passed through a waiting room where nothing happened and then to our vehicle. I feel the our vehicle never worked properly as the exhibits we were off to the side and there was none of the movement that we could see from the other car.
When we arrived at the penguin exhibit we tried to explain that we did not think the ride had worked correctly but were told that we did the mild ride. Rather than offer any type of assistance the Seaworld employee argued with us. The penquins exhibit looked interesting but as we had been sweating up until entering the ride everyone was wearing damp t-shirts and shorts. It was way too cold to enjoy this part of the exhibit. What was someone thinking? Our concensus is that this is the worst ride in Orlando.
From Mark Kausch on May 25, 2013 at 2:16 PM
I am glad that I'm not the only one to think that this ride looks pretty boring. I'm thinking that the POV video should maybe have taken place from the "mild" section (yeah, section's not the right word, but I couldn't think of another) so that we could see more of the surroundings - assuming that there was more to see.

Also, I still haven't seen an answer to the question of whether you can bypass the ride for the "live" part.

From 174.62.141.221 on May 26, 2013 at 12:31 PM
Looks like a sad ride...why couldn't they have made a ride that you get to see the penguins for more than 30 seconds. I remember the old conveyor belt ride, doesn't see all that better. Plus, why do they have to make the video scary with the seal trying to eat the penguin... Sea World needs to really work on their park. I was just there and it was a rush to see the shows and fight the line waits. I will say I like how they do the Dolphin Feeding now. At the Sea Lion we did get an extra tray because we were there when it was feeding time, so some good things about SeaWorld.
From 142.196.141.70 on May 26, 2013 at 8:34 PM
The queue line was pretty long today, at 2.5 hours. We chose the wild ride. We expected that the even wild would not be very rough, since this is billed as a family ride, and they let very small children on. The first room is interesting. Not necessarily what I imagine Antarctica to look like. The next room was neat because the vehicles sort of dance around with each other. The end of the ride got very very cold. It was neat to end in the penguin habitat, but again very cold.

All in all, I think its a good family ride. The kids liked it a lot.

From 71.41.118.242 on May 27, 2013 at 4:15 AM
Total waste of time. I wish it was just a turtle trek type exhibit. Someone is definitely loosing their job over this waste of money. When are they going to do something with the "forgotten" part of the park the old Budweiser stables and water show?
From 98.82.165.205 on May 27, 2013 at 4:23 AM
This ride failed miserably in every way. B-O-R-I-N-G. Stupid. Unrealistic (glowing ice that looks like someone on acid?). Not even educational. Yesterday we had a 2.5 hr wait. There's no way to see a single penguin without riding the crappy ride. The penguin is not the star of this attraction.

On the way home, we discussed our Sea World annual passes. We're letting them expire and not renewing.

From 166.147.123.25 on May 27, 2013 at 8:07 AM
3 hour long wait this morning at 9:30am. Completely ridiculous!
From Rod Whitenack on May 27, 2013 at 5:33 PM
If Sea World didn't have their whole Summer riding on this attraction, I think they would shut it down immediately for a complete redesign. Word of mouth is NOT good. I expect that after the busy season they'll be looking at a complete overhaul to try to improve it. Someone actually will lose their job, and maybe they should. Art design and creative imagineer jobs pay well and are tough to get. Some really poor corporate board room decisions were made on this ride.
From Mark Fairleigh on May 28, 2013 at 6:51 AM
Certainly not going to draw me away from Disney or Universal by it's lonesome. Just not enough wow to what amounts to a flashy extended queue experience for an animal exhibit. The outside themeing is pretty well-done though.
From Tracy Bates on May 28, 2013 at 10:47 AM
I'll be going to seaworld next week and am saddened by all the negative comments. I was hoping for more. I'll still ride it, though.

For the person commenting that they are going to let their seaworld passes expire, I wouldn't do that. The one thing that is better about Busch Gardens / Seaworld passes is that the price doesn't go up as long as you keep them current. I'm paying less than half what the current price for a platinum pass costs because I've never let it lapse from when I started getting them regularly in 2003.

From 71.226.87.42 on May 28, 2013 at 12:36 PM
I was there for media day and only waited about 15 minutes to ride it let alone 2,3, 4, or even 5 hours. I'm going to say this may be the biggest let down for any new ride to hit Orlando in decades, yes its that bad. Please don't waste your time and if you do go in with extremely low expectations.
From Jorge Arnoldson on May 28, 2013 at 12:44 PM
This ride does look disappointing from the POV. Sure, the level of attention to detail is of SeaWorld's high standards, but the ride experience is too short. I was expecting more areas of the ride inside penguin habitats, but only saw that window at the end of the ride.
From 2.120.244.68 on May 28, 2013 at 3:35 PM
Queued for 3.5 hours on opening day and what a disappointment should have cut to the chase and had a penguin colony only cos that last bit was great. The rest was a waste of time should have gone on kraken and manta 5 times each in that time
Gary in London England

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