We penguins have our pride. In my case, I’m no run-of-the-mill bird. I’m a King penguin, in fact, bred for blizzards at the bottom of the world.
Call it retirement if you want, but one day last May, I found myself stationed in Florida, flipper-to-flipper with 250 of my friends: fellow King, Gentoo, Adélie and Rockhopper penguins. Just what, under the sun, was going on?
A new theme park attraction, that’s what. Namely, SeaWorld Orlando’s much-advertised “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin.” The longtime home of Shamu the whale has a new strategy: attempt to simulate a “dangerous voyage to the coldest and windiest continent,” to where ice can end up more than 9,000 feet thick and temperatures sink to 129 below zero. It might also be a strategy to turn public attention away from killer whales, whose captivity is maligned in the documentary “Blackfish.” SeaWorld calls the movie inaccurate and misleading.
Before the official “Antarctica” opening last year, penguins from the park barnstormed around the country to promote the venture, making guest appearances at travel shows and on TV. According to SeaWorld’s Suzanne Pelisson-Beasley, the park’s handlers bought each penguin its own airline seat in coach. “Actually,” she said, “each carrier stretches over two seats and contains two penguins. They have to use a seat-belt extender, of course. The airlines and passengers have been really good about it. On Southwest, they’ve even let well-behaved birds take some walks in the aisle.”
SeaWorld’s been busy handing out an “Antarctica” “passport” to help whip up publicity for the new habitat and the high-tech ride, which blows gusts of wind at visitors while whirling them past imitation glaciers and under giant icicles. “The coldest attraction on earth,” brags the document.
Of course, my fellow snowbirds and I aren’t the only new residents here at SeaWorld. The theme park has the world’s largest killer whale population in human care. The newest member is a male calf born in 2013. Called Makani, which means “wind,” he weighed more than 300 pounds, measured roughly 7 feet long, and joined a family that includes his mother, Kasatka, brother, Nakia, and sister, Kalia.
The 5,000-seat Shamu Stadium, the venue for most whale shows, closed earlier this month for major maintenance and will reopen in April. Until then, you can still see Shamu and other whales and sea turtles in Turtle Trek, a 360-degree domed theater. But really, penguins are the stars.
Glaciers and icicles
Visitors entering “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin” find themselves surrounded with artificial glacier walls that are embedded with tiny tumbled glass balls to imitate the sparkle of real Antarctic ice. About 2,500 fake icicles, many made of blown glass, dance across the landscape.
Those lining up for the “Antarctica” ride weave through cavelike compartments that get chillier and chillier in an attempt to toughen up tourists for the type of temperatures that we chubbier birds enjoy. Next, they get spun and jolted on trackless vehicles that move like round Zambonis. They are also treated to the on-screen saga of a cartoon waddler named Puck and his family as they try to make the best of harsh Antarctic conditions. If visitors can still stand up at this point, they’re dropped off at the main attraction: live penguins.
That’s us, of course. Our habitat here, which is bigger and more dramatically sculpted than at most zoos, is kept at a pleasant 30 degrees and our LED lighting is supposed to approximate seasonal night and day in Antarctica itself. At certain times of the year, we sleep until 10:30 a.m. or later, so — fair warning — no flash pictures are allowed until then. The best part is the underwater viewing area, a two-story pane of glass behind which penguins swim, perform nearly impossible spin moves and show off even more than seals or otters.
The Antarctic “realm”
According to Brian Morrow, “Empire of the Penguin” creative director and lead designer, the whole project really isn’t supposed to be referred to as a ride or even as an attraction. “This is a realm,” insisted Morrow. “It’s nature-based, not fantasy, and fully immersive.”
Morrow pointed out that even the ride vehicles behave like animals.
“At first, when you get on board, they wobble a little, like the baby penguin in the movie, as if they’re unsure of themselves,” he said. According to a park fact-sheet, “Antarctica” is the world’s only theme park attraction with a “trackless ride system that allows guests the choice of picking the intensity level, coupled with a variable ride path.”
Morrow himself hasn’t taken any research trips to Antarctica the continent, but he and colleagues were so determined to fine-tune the attraction (sorry, realm) that they hired cultural scientists to find out why humans love penguins so much. The verdict? “It’s because they move like our kids. Like toddlers.”
Well, enough about park management. Not to sound arrogant, but judging from the crowds so far, it’s really our penguin antics that people are coming to see. They clap and whistle as we swim upside down and skid around on fake ice floes and tundra. We are the stars of the hour.
Visitors snap pictures as we are fed herring and krill, and then head straight for the Expedition Café (which looks a lot like McMurdo Station) to order plates stacked up with “South of the equator Baked Chicken” ($11.49) and the “Iceberg Wedge” ($8.79).
Even the cafe Coke machines have pictures of penguins on them. Energetic penguins. Positive penguins.
Maybe, come to think of it, there are worse places to spend one’s golden years.
Mandel is an author of several books for children, including the new “Zoo Ah-Choooo” (Holiday House).