Ride review - Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at SeaWorld Orlando
Written by Robert Niles
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.
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.
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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