A second look at SeaWorld Orlando's Antarctica
Written by Russell Meyer
Theme Park Insider's Editor Robert Niles had an opportunity to experience the media preview event for SeaWorld's newest attraction 2 weeks ago, and provided a pretty thorough report on the icy new digs. A conveniently planned business trip had me in Orlando this week, and provided me a chance to get a look at Antarctica from the perspective of the Orlando summer tourist. As a Busch Gardens Platinum Passholder, I have unlimited access to all of the chain's theme parks, including all of the SeaWorld Parks, Busch Gardens Parks, Sesame Place, and water parks. I built in a number of blocks of free time into my trip to make sure I would have a chance to experience the new attraction, and I needed just about all of it to fully experience and get a feel for this very complicated new ride/exhibit. I attempted to get in shortly after landing in Orlando on Monday morning, but a 120-minute long line at 10am did not fit into my schedule. I made it back to the park on Wednesday afternoon (@4pm) to find a 70-minute posted wait during a pretty stiff rainstorm, and decided to bear it with an actual wait time of approximately 35 minutes. Thursday provided me many more opportunities to experience the ride/exhibit with little to no wait because of Tropical Storm Andrea passing to the north, keeping many people in their hotel rooms for the day. After six rides and over 90 minutes of total time inside the exhibit, I have been able to make a number of observations should be helpful for anyone making plans to visit SeaWorld exclusively to experience Antarctica.
As Robert mentioned in his review, there may be a bit of overselling the ride portion of the attraction, and I would certainly agree with that. SeaWorld has spent a lot of time through its website promoting the technology of the ride featuring vehicles designed by Oceaneering. I think the biggest mistake that they've made is the names they've given to the two levels of ride intensity guests can experience. SeaWorld has chosen to use "wild" and "mild" to differentiate between the two experiences, and while "mild" is definitely pretty tame (no spinning, tilting, or sudden movements), "wild", when compared to other Oceaneering-vehicle-based attractions (Spiderman, Transformers, Curse of DarKastle), is more like a bumpy flight crossed with a spin on Mad Hatter's Teacups with your mother who won't let you spin them. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a difference between the two adventures, but "wild" is just a bit of a misnomer.
The queue system is actually pretty well done. The line originates outside of the attraction, and snakes around the perimeter until guests reach a set of sliding doors. The doors lead to a pre-show room where guests are introduced to Puck and a colony of gentoo penguins living on the rocky, icy coast of Antarctica. The pre-show room is very nicely designed, with a number of video screens that provide a unique display for guests to view. I'm guessing that this room is also used as an ante-room to remove the humidity from the air prior to sending guests forward into the attraction (my wet clothes dried from the time it took to view the pre-show until I was on the ride, about 10 minutes).
Once the pre-show is complete, guests are guided down a twisty, icy corridor until they reach a fork in the road. This is where riders will choose which level of adventure they want to experience. Guests under 42" are required to take the "mild" adventure, while guests between 42" and 48" have to ride with a responsible companion in order to take the "wild" adventure. Once guests have selected their adventure, the line snakes through an icy corridor where they wait until a loading bay is ready. This is where I was impressed with the technology of the ride, something that may be lost on the average theme park guest. There are four loading bays, accommodating up to 8 guests each. The loading bays can be switched between "wild" or "mild" depending upon the demand at any given time. Queue managers directing guests to loading bays select which adventure each vehicle will have, so if you reach that decision point, don't make your decision based on the length of the lines, because the queue managers will set the ride vehicles up to keep both lines moving. If everyone coming through is choosing "wild", all four loading bays will be set up with "wild" vehicles or vice versa.
Inside the loading bay, there is another LED screen where Puck makes another appearance and prepares guests for their adventure. As Robert had mentioned, this room is very much like the ones used on The Simpsons Ride that act as a final holding corral before guests are directed to their vehicle. Another sliding door opens, and guests are a few steps from their vehicle. The sleek vehicles position riders in 2 rows of 4 and are far more open than other Oceaneering vehicles. Seat belts, instead of lap bars, are used to secure riders in their seats. I would recommend taller guests or riders with longer legs to avoid the two end seats in the front row since the curve of the vehicle limits legroom on those 2 seats. There is a completely flat entry into the vehicles, so even the clumsiest person could probably get in without tripping.
There are quite a few videos of the ride itself out there, but as most have been saying, it's pretty short and underwhelming. A couple I rode with wanted to know if "that was it" when we got to the unload platform, and unfortunately it was. The entire ride encompasses five rooms. The first room is the loading/dispatch room (or lava lamp room, as Robert described it). The second is the icicle room, where the vehicles do the most spinning. The third is the "blizzard" room, where vehicles are queued in groups of four to enter the next room. The fourth room is the "action" room where a movie is projected onto a giant screen while the "wild" vehicles react and simulate the motion shown in the movie. The fifth room is the actual exhibit and unload platform.
There are a series of curtains between the "blizzard" room, "action" room, and "exhibit" room, along with the unload area that act as a series of airlocks to allow the park to maintain the 32-degree temperatures inside the exhibit. Yes, it is really that cold inside, and those who never venture outside of Florida will have a hard time staying in the exhibit for more than a few minutes. Also, guests with really wet clothes (after sitting in the splash-zone of a show, after riding Journey to Atlantis, or after a long summer downpour), will not be able to linger in the exhibit for long.
As reported, there are a series of nets that have been put up in areas where some penguins have escaped. However, there is still a nice viewing area unobscured by nets that places guests within arm's reach of the penguins.
As with most SeaWorld exhibits, there are experts walking around to answer your questions or to remind you to not use the flash on your camera. This is where it's probably a good idea to think about when to visit the attraction. The lighting inside simulates that light patterns in Antarctica, which is in the southern hemisphere. That means, during Orlando summer, the lights are dimmed for nearly 20 hours. Most cameras will have a seriously hard time taking pictures in these lighting conditions, particularly if you want to capture an action shot. To get the best view of the penguins in full simulated sunlight conditions, try to time your entry into the attraction between 10:30 AM and 1:30 PM during the summer, or just visit in the fall, winter, or spring, when the lighting in the exhibit will be kept brighter for more hours during the day. For those with digital SLRs, I recommend bracketing your white balance to try to get the best looking pictures if you have to visit the attraction during low-light conditions. I had an extremely hard time trying to get the white balance right, and never really got a picture I was really happy with when taking pictures in the dimly lit exhibit.
Guests can stay in the exhibit/unload area for as long as they can take it. The space is not that big, so chances are you will be able to see everything you want in the 5-10 minutes most people would be able to tolerate the cold. However, shutterbugs may want to spend a little more time, and to give you an idea, I was able to tolerate the cold for about 35 minutes wearing a pair of jeans and a short-sleeved shirt.
After guests have lost their taste for the cold, a revolving door leads to a much warmer area where guests can view the penguins. Most people will be drawn to the gigantic underwater viewing window that can be seen from three different viewing levels.
However, one of the best views is from a window tucked over by the elevator to the far right of the room where guests can see the back of the exhibit without shivering to death. I had not noticed this window until the third time I went through, and was amazed with the view that it provides.
Guests then exit the exhibit through another revolving door and into the humid Florida air. The area around Antarctica also includes the obligatory gift shop, lockers, a beverage station with Coca-Cola Freestyle machines featuring the SeaWorld exclusive Vanilla South Pole Chill, and the Explorers Cafe, where guests can select from a number of different internationally-themed dishes.
Is Antarctica the best new ride of 2013? Probably not. However, I think some arguments could be made to support the claim that it may be the best new theme park attraction of 2013. Antarctica is far more than just the ride, and the promoted stars of the attraction are the penguins. Antarctica definitely contains the most amazing penguin exhibit I've ever seen. Those that remember the old Penguin Encounter (or have recently been to the ones in San Antonio or San Diego), where guests stood on a conveyor belt while penguins swam and waddled behind 2 inches of foggy glass and goofy music played in the background, would certainly give SeaWorld high marks for this significantly upgraded exhibit. Also, the entire area around the attractions has been given a complete makeover to simulate the icy, rocky facades of the most desolate continent on Earth. It may not be as large as Magic Kingdom's New Fantasyland or Universal's Springfield, but it's no less detailed or complete than those recent additions.
Guests who come to experience Antarctica should think of the attraction as a complete experience, not just a ride. Think of the ride as just a fancy conveyor belt leading you to an awesome animal habitat. If you're looking for a thrilling attraction, go ride Manta or Kraken. This attraction is set up very much like Wild Arctic, where the animals are the stars, and the ride is just a way to get you to their world. It's unfortunate that SeaWorld probably put a little too much marketing into the ride itself instead of where it belongs, which is the habitat. Also, it's a shame that guests cannot currently view the habitat without riding the ride (the primary reason why they offer the "mild" version of the ride is so virtually everyone can ride and get to the exhibit using the ride vehicles).
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin is infinitely better than the attraction it replaced, the Penguin Encounter. Not only does it provide a one-of-a-kind animal habitat, but it includes a decent ride and immersive experience for guests to enjoy. As with just about every theme park attraction, it's not perfect, and unfortunately some of the imperfections of the attraction are magnified by over-hyping of the ride itself. However, the attraction as a whole is definitely a winner, and will provide a unique experience to the South Pole for guests, without ever having to leave Orlando.
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