Jeannine Williamson joins the march of the penguins at SeaWorld’s latest attraction
I’d just come from basking in the Sunshine State’s famous rays. Now a cool wind was blowing across my face and the farther I walked the more the temperature dropped.
You don’t expect to freeze in Orlando, where Brits, drawn by the joint magnets of year round sunshine and theme parks, make up nearly a quarter of all international visitors. Get ready to have your assumptions challenged.
Welcome to Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, the biggest-ever expansion at SeaWorld and the latest reason to visit. This thrilling, chilling attraction captivates visitors of all ages.
The fun started as I followed the sign to the South Pole – with a pointer to London 17,039km away – and walked past steep ‘ice walls’ into the attraction, which begins with an introduction to Puck, the animated penguin chick who takes visitors on their polar expedition.
The cave leads to a trackless ride that transports passengers on a journey through a sparkling ice cave and on to the ‘ocean’ where Puck dodges a peckish sea lion and other perils. You can choose from a ‘wild’ or ‘mild’ trip: the former isn’t extreme and involves some rocking and spinning around, while the latter is suitable for toddlers.
The real stars of the show are dramatically revealed when the car glides to a halt and doors open to reveal the stunning new home for SeaWorld’s colony of nearly 250 penguins.
It was a moment with a real wow factor. Here you come face to face with gentoo, Adélie, rockhopper and king penguins – the last with their equally giant fluffy chicks – in a -1C icy landscape that mimics their homeland with changing light patterns for day, night and the seasons.
What makes it really special is that the penguins are no longer behind a glass screen, as they used to be. They now go about their day-to-day business behind a low wall, with the closest within touching distance – although, of course, you’re not allowed to reach over. But you can see, hear and sometimes even smell them. You may even be splashed by them if they waddle around near the wall.
I could have watched for ages, but it does get chilly. Helpful hint: if you want to linger longer, take some layers to keep goosebumps at bay. After five minutes, I reluctantly conceded defeat.
However, once you leave the snowy scenery you can stay as long as you like to watch the penguins diving through the water in the two-storey underwater viewing area kept at a temperature suitable for those in shorts and T-shirt rather than penguins. This really is the coolest attraction in Orlando.
Thrill-seekers won’t want to miss Manta, a face-down rollercoaster and the closest you’ll get to flying, or the multiple-looping Kraken, regularly rated one of the world’s top coasters by ride enthusiasts. The gentler Journey to Atlantis water splash includes a fun-filled trip through the mythical city.
Turtle Trek is a new 3D 360 degree cinema that shows a film of the ocean from a turtle’s eye view. For live animal antics, feeding time is a high point for visitors and animals alike at the engaging seal and sea lion exhibit, while Blue Horizons is a theatrical spectacular with dolphins, tropical birds and acrobats.
For large-scale excitement, killer whales take centre stage in the awe-inspiring One Ocean show. Sit in the Soak Zone to really experience the action!
WHERE TO STAY
SeaWorld doesn’t have any on site hotels, but there is a good choice of accommodation nearby. The closest hotel is the luxurious 716-room Renaissance Orlando Resort across the road from the park’s entrance.
For a mid-range option the family-friendly SpringHill Suites is another official partner hotel on nearby International Drive and offers a free shuttle to the park. Similarly, the Fairfield Inn & Suites on the same street offers good value accommodation and free transfers.
Several pre-bookable tours are available to enable visitors to skip queues, enjoy animal encounters or celebrate a special occasion.
They include Quick Queue Unlimited, which takes visitors to the front of the queue on the most popular rides, including Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. The 90-minute Behind the Scenes Tour provides a fascinating insight into SeaWorld and its conservation programme, with the chance to touch a shark and a penguin.
For children’s birthdays, a great option is Dine with Shamu, offering a meal in a private area of the whale stadium (Do Something Different offers Behind the Scenes tours from £23 per adult and £8 per child, and Dine with Shamu from £21/£14).
For a real red-carpet experience, the VIP Tour includes a six-hour guided tour, fast-track entry to attractions and all-day dining, from £245 through Attraction World.
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