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July 15, 2014

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin at Sea World Orlando



Summer in Orlando suddenly became much cooler in 2013, with the opening of Sea World's Antarctica. The jewel of this glacial creation, Empire of the Penguin, is an innovative, trackless ride - culminating in an unprecedented encounter with the frozen ambassadors themselves, live and in the flesh, er... feathers!



When I was a tiny tot, I was obsessed with a book entitled, The Penguin that Hated the Cold. I read about the struggles of poor Pablo so frequently that I easily memorized the entire tale before long. I loved that crazy, silly little penguin, but I didn't yet realize that this was the start of a love affair.

Somewhere along the way, I took up the notion that penguins are my spirit animals. Our shared traits and mannerisms display an undeniable parallel in our very nature. Then, of course, there's the fact that most of my wardrobe is black or white... I'm rather pint-sized... and many peers in high school loved pointing out that I tend to walk like a penguin. Not the waddle, per se... but I do seem to lack the ability to point my stubborn feet quite straight. Spirit animal, past life... somehow, these little buggers are just my soulmates. Don't judge.


But, I digress. You're interested in the attraction, not my obsession. I just couldn't resist the urge to bring up Pablo!


I tend to wait for the frenzy to simmer down before tackling new attractions at the parks. Empire of the Penguin naturally commanded overwhelming interest, and lines remained consistently long for a while. When I finally couldn't take it anymore, we caved in and joined the queue - at a relatively low wait by then, months after opening: 45 minutes. I tend to cap my wait willingness at 30 minutes for most attractions at the area parks. As a passholder with frequent visits, I can afford to pass up longer lines, and don't usually feel the need to bend on that. Empire of the Penguin is a rare exception... it's worth the wait! Even as a frequent guest, this is one that still makes me gasp - and cry just a bit - every time. 
So, what can you expect when you head out to Antarctica? For starters, Sea World has recently added a new queue that bypasses the ride access, offering a direct path to the penguins themselves. Not that I would ever dream of suggesting skipping the ride portion, but if you just want to pop in and check on the area's inhabitants for a moment, this is a brilliant option! A friendly employee will give you a ticket to return at a predesignated time for entry.

On our most recent visit, we took advantage of that short wait time to grab a quick bite at Expedition Cafe (preferable to standing in a line).

Expedition Cafe is a quick service dining location with multiple food stations serving up diverse menu options (including Asian, Italian and chicken). Both outdoor and indoor seating areas are adjacent to the food service building, as is the self-serve beverage stop boasting the Coca-Cola "Freestyle" cornucopia of flavor options.

Don't forget to waddle your way into Glacial Collections for a penguin souvenir or two. Wearables, huggables, displayables and playables... you'll find something here for every penguin fan in your family. A unique option? The customizable "Cup That Cares"!
 
Fun highlight: interactive touch screens in this area provide facts and trivia on the chilly friends you'll soon be meeting!

Now that you've explored Antarctica, get yourself in that line - the penguins await you!! Be aware... this is not a constantly moving queue. Rather, guests enter in batches, and stages. When you first enter the building, your "batch" will fill the interior of a glacier, with screens of various shapes and sizes revealing glimpses of an Antarctic scene all around you.

Following your welcome, and an introduction to your new penguin friends, you'll proceed through a door under the main screen, on the opposite wall from where you entered. Don't be dismayed when you realize that another queue awaits you. This one is quite short, and you really are almost there! Right now, you have a very important decision to make... are you feeling WILD? Before proceeding, you have to choose the "mild" or "wild" adventure experience. Follow your chosen line to an elevator that will transport you in small groups to your final destination. On the way, you'll spend a little more time with Puck, the friendly little Gentoo Penguin baby you met during the pre-show.


To be totally frank, I have no idea what the mild version consists of, but for those who will be traveling with little or timid ones, I can tell you that "wild" is not a thrill ride. I would assume that the wild aspect might be something to consider if you have a bad back, or certain other circumstances. It does not have drops or anything extreme, but it does toss you around a touch. Universal Studios guests might compare this to a feature on Cat in the Hat... Disney-goers, think Mr. Toad or Primeval Whirl's chaotic pinballing. 


Empire of the Penguin's ride feature isn't literally comparable to any other theme park attraction that I have experienced. It may be somewhat similar in certain features, but it really is the first-of-its-kind. The ride vehicles operate on a trackless system that moves guests in groups of eight forward, sideways, twirling and even surging over invisible "humps" on the track that also simply isn't there. Someone always seems to be looking around asking about how it's moving the whole time. Most recently, it was my husband who spent the entire ride bewildered. (I'm assuming it's some of those humps and jerky twirls that distinguish the wild from the mild.) As a matter of fact, each vehicle operates on its own built-in, wireless navigation system that directs the two multi-dimensional platforms that control the vehicle's movement, and rider perspective.

BUT...
the ride is only a portion of the experience itself. It truly is a breathtaking cavern of awe inside! Take a quick break from the giggling to soak up the sights as you hurtle through!
Over the course of your journey, you'll encounter the perils that our penguin friends face on a daily basis. You'll experience harrowing encounters with predators and natural threats as you follow Puck on his quest to safely reunite with his family. 






Just as you're celebrating the happy reunion, you're invited to join Puck's friends in their amazing land of ice and snow. Remember when I mentioned that teary-eyed gasp I just can't refrain from? This is that moment... gets me every single time.





I really am an overgrown child. As the vehicle docks, I always find my legs bouncing with excitement waiting for the seat belt to release. One of these days, I fear a penguin may hit me with a restraining order. My paparazzi skills get the full test here! If you think I'm infatuated with the Disney ducks, you simply have NO idea! No flash photography here, folks... and as you can see, there's no reason to attempt to fracture that rule, so just DON'T. 





Poke around every nook and cranny of this area! Most guests flock to the immediate viewing area once they exit the ride vehicles. Of course, this means that this will be the most congested perspective. Keep it moving, and you'll discover plenty of other areas perfect for viewing and photographing the penguins. Keep to the human side of the barriers, but you're free to wander back and forth. Viewing zones reveal areas both above and under water, as well as snow-capped rocks for hopping on or diving off! Umm... the penguins, not the guests.



Nearly 250 penguins of four different species (Gentoo, Rockhopper, King and Adelies) make up this fantastic colony. My personal favorites are the Rockhoppers. There's just something about that crazy look of theirs! Find out more about the Sea World penguins here.

If that doesn't quite satisfy your need for penguin time between visits, you can always keep an eye on the silly little antics of Sea World's newest inhabitants via 
Penguin Cam! You'll absolutely thank me for that link later! Truly one of the most rewarding an enchanting experiences! I have to give such an enthusiastic thumbs-up to Sea World for their unprecedented, unparalleled work with this one.





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