Antarctica Empire of the Penguin SeaWorld Preview
Antartica is about to get much more accessible. The biggest ever extension to Florida’s SeaWorld is due to open May 2013 and will introduce visitors to The Empire of the Penguin. While in Orlando recently SeaWorld took us behind the scenes to preview their new Antarctica Empire of the Penguin attraction…
I’ve never met a celebrity quite like this
It’s the same routine as interviewing any politician or A list celebrity. You follow a guide through underground corridors in a cloak of secrecy. You are shown into a quiet room, where a minder is watchfully hovering. You nervously fiddle with your notebook and check your recorder is working while the subject of the interview is collected in a flashy vehicle. The PR warns you not to get too close, or to be too forward. You are to move when you are told, and to leave when the star is tired of you. You are allowed one picture, which the minder will take. It’s a simple exchange and everyone knows the deal. You get your story, a posed picture, and a sprinkling of stardust in your palm. They clock up five minutes of fame. Then they take off in their limo while you amble back to the pay and display wondering what you should make the kids for tea.
They’re never quite as cuddly in real life
So here’s the thing about stars. They never shine quite as bright in real life. On the stage they are always perfect. In a bland hotel or conference room, they are often imperfect. No space for airbrushing. No time for hero worshipping. Whether patting their back or their ego, you need to watch out as they can sometimes bite. This one is particularly tetchy. I thought all penguins were cute. Pingu is adorable right? The flappy dudes in Madagascar are a riot. But this one is just tetchy. I’m not sure I really want us to be in a room together. We have to be quiet when she enters in case she refuses to come out of her cage. When she is unveiled we have to sit a few metres away so she doesn’t feel threatened. We have to approach her from the rear so we don’t startle her. We have to pretend to be the same species, stroking her gently on the back and tail with two fingers that simulate a beak. Perhaps she’s tetchy because we aren’t the same species. And we are in a rather warm room.
She’s tetchy and she smells of fish
This penguin isn’t fluffy either. Not like the ones in Harrods toy shop. Four year old Celia’s fur is rough and damp, like that of an elderly dog when it comes out of a pond. And she smells. Like a kipper.
But still, it’s an honour. After all, how often do you get to see a penguin? Celia is one of 250 penguins that will populate the new Antarctica colony at SeaWorld. They are all currently ‘acclimatising backstage’ to the light and temperature while builders finish work on their brand new home which will include a ride through the Empire of the Penguin. It will also include quite a lot of snow that will be made on site in machines built into the ceiling.
Antarctica Empire of the Penguin is going to be big…
“It’s going to be bigger than the arctic,” says Angela, our guide.
No way. Bigger than the arctic? Did I mishear? Could Sir Ranulph Fiennes be doing his next expedition in the penguin enclosure? But Angela is talking about the SeaWorld Arctic. Admittedly The SeaWorld Arctic is quite impressive, if not exactly a continental shelf. They have a characterful polar bear called Johnny who is capable of lifting a 3000 Ib whale out of the water but doesn’t often go swimming.
“He rests for 18 hours a day. We chuck marshmallows or popcorn into the middle of the pool to make him put his head under water,” Angela briefs us. I can identify with Johnny. I’d only go in that water if they made it a giant bucket of sweet and salted.
SeaWorld – the park for those ambivalent about theme parks
SeaWorld is one of Orlando’s big hitters and Antarctica will give it the latest in high tech rides (and the first trackless coaster) and that will continue to help it to compete for the tourist buck. But rides, or indeed crowds aren’t at the heart of SeaWorld. It doesn’t have the highs of Universal or the bangs and budget of Disney. It feels more like a day out at the zoo than a high octane coaster hop.
It has learnt from Disney though; the dolphin show is definitely more Little Mermaid than Blue Planet. (It learnt something else from Disney too; the dolphin stadium is flooded with men wearing pink octopuses on their heads, selling dolphin towels.) When the good guys win and they spin on their trapezes, with dolphins flying about and parrots zipping through the stadium to heart tugging tunes, I don’t know whether to clap or cry. And when they bring on some of the 23 pilot whales that beached themselves on the coast in 2011, I almost wail. Later, at Dinner with Shamu, the killer whales have the same effect.
Learning while having fun
One thing SeaWorld providex that the other parks don’t is an education. We don’t ride a turtle, but we see one of the 125 given sanctuary in the park and view their nesting grounds. (Their eggs look like ping pong balls.) We hear about conservation efforts to protect them and learn about their habits and habitat. We could ride a Manta Ray on a coaster, but Cameron prefers to meet the real thing, and feed it. And then he goes fishing for the teeth it has discarded; they shed many thousands of them in a lifetime. We get soaked. But that’s good, according to Angela,
“If you don’t leave SeaWorld at least partially wet then you haven’t had the full experience,” she laughs, as Cameron adds a Manta Ray baby tooth to his collection of precious things.
The habits of the sea cow
While Disney toys with images of a mouse, conservation is the mantra at SeaWorld. One of their pet projects is to save the manatees that have been damaged by fishing boats.
“There’s some high speed manatee action going on here,” says Angela as we watch the animal often known as a sea cow float past at the speed of a slug. They can eat 100 pounds of lettuce a day and have no body fat.” That has to be a good diet tip. “They also eat their own poop,” she adds. I don’t think they’ve ever tried that at Slimming World.
SeaWorld is open from 9am to 10pm, seven days a week.
Antarctica; The Empire of the Penguin opens 24th May 2013.
Disclosure Note: Thanks to Visit Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando for looking after us during our visit to Orlando and organising our behind the scenes penguin meeting.