Could SeaWorld's concept art for Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin have set up visitors for disappointment?
Written by Robert Niles
SeaWorld Orlando's largest-ever theme park investment, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin has opened to huge crowds (with wait times typically exceeding two hours)… and mediocre reviews. Some fans have lauded the ride for its advanced ride system and intricate set detail. But others have ripped it [see comments] for lacking an engaging story and not delivering enough on-ride views of the attraction's stars -- SeaWorld's penguins.
SeaWorld promoted the attraction aggressively, as one would expect given the size of its investment, which park president Terry Prather has called the largest in company history. In addition to the predictable media outreach, SeaWorld tried to appeal directly to fans through social media, including a YouTube series called "Behind the Freeze," in which SeaWorld Creative Director Brian Morrow updated fans on the progress of the new attraction in the months leading to its opening last week.
But could some of SeaWorld's early marketing efforts set the stage for public disappointment in its new ride? Many fans complained the Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin did not meet their expectations. What crafted the expectations that the ride itself failed to meet?
Consider this widely distributed promotional image for Antarctica, which appeared on Theme Park Insider and many other sites around the Internet:
Concept image courtesy SeaWorld
Looks like fun, doesn't it? You'll ride in open vehicle, through a bright, open, live animal habitat, looking at penguins just a few feet away from you. Sliding across the ice, you might even get a little wet from a splash through water somewhere on the ride. And you'll also get a chance to walk into the animal habitat, getting even closer to the penguins, as the ride vehicles slide around you.
But what we got, instead, was this (skip to 2:10 for the on-ride portion):
The set detail inside the ride provides some stunning visuals:
A frozen waterfall
But spinning through a darkened cavern of icicles and multi-colored rocks isn't what the concept image for the ride suggested:
You don't see live penguins on the ride until the very end, and they're not out on the ice with you, but kept instead behind a floor-to-ceiling panel of glass. Riders will get the chance to get closer to the penguins, without a barrier between them, but only after exiting the ride.
SeaWorld's wisely timed the lighting inside the penguin habitat to approximate light levels in the real Antarctica. But in late May, that means a darkened environment for almost all of the day for the penguins -- not the bright setting that the park's promotional images portrayed.
All this goes to show the risk that parks accept when they issue concept art for their upcoming attractions. Disney's John Hench was the master at creating such images, painting deceptively vague, impressionistic scenes that appeared to show great detail but in fact revealed little.
SeaWorld showed its future visitors photorealistic detail in its promotional images for Antarctica -- details that did appear in the ride and its surrounding land, but not in the context relative to one another that visitors saw in that promotional image. That created expectations for an experience that the ride did not deliver, perhaps setting up many of those visitors for disappointment.
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