Lunch will be served anytime now – fresh fish – and no one has to cook it.
The adults are busy catching up while the kids swim and play, but this isn’t any waterfront playground on a late summer day. This is a unique playground for penguins – “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins” – the largest expansion ever at SeaWorld Orlando (www.seaworldorlando.com).
Welcome to the home of 250 penguins from four different species:
Gentoo is the large penguin with a white band on its head. They’re the fastest penguins, capable of swimming 25 mph. King, the largest penguin in Antarctica, has a vivid orange patch on each side of its head and upper chest. They can dive up to 1,000 feet and hunt food together to protect themselves from predators. Adelie is the classic black-and-white penguin, navigating the ocean using the sun as a guide and Rockhoppers, with their distinctive red eyes, sometimes will leap three times their height out of the ocean to avoid predators. They got their name because they are often hopping from rock to rock.
But before we meet the penguin colony, Puck, an animated Gentoo penguin, takes us on a penguin-eye tour of the South Pole. Some of the “glaciers” are 50 feet tall, and the icicles were hand-blown (of Pyrex) to exactly replicate the clarity of the ice in Antarctica.
It took nearly 400 designers, craftsmen, animators, a symphony orchestra, penguin experts, scenic and lighting designers, as well as ride experts to conceive and build “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins.” (Even the computerized light system is adjusted to simulate sunrise and sunset in Antarctica. That means if you come in December, it will be bright 20 hours a day.)
Just as Puck, on screen, waddles and slides on the ice, we do the same in our “car” looking at the caverns he is taking refuge in from a blizzard – giant icicles, glowing blue glaciers. “That was the best part,” said 6-year-old Andrew Coit, visiting with his family from New Orleans. “And then we got to see real penguins.”
The penguin habitat mimics Antarctica with wind, snow and cold water, and on the behind-the-scenes tour, we learn it takes some 400 pounds of fish to feed them every day. Come in fall, and you may get to see penguin nests and maybe even baby penguins.
And until Dec. 20 you can do it for less money. Weekday tickets to SeaWorld and to Busch Gardens Tampa are $50 for adults and kids (as compared to $89 for adults and $81 for children). For an additional $25, guests may add a day’s visit to Aquatica Orlando (www.aquaticabyseaworld.com/en/orlando/park-info) with the purchase of the SeaWorld Orlando Weekday ticket, or add a day’s visit to Adventure Island in Tampa with the purchase of the Busch Gardens Tampa Weekday Ticket.
There are other pluses to visiting Orlando in fall: It’s Orlando’s “Deal Season” with hotels as low as $64 a night (www.VisitOrlando.com/deals). For example, the all-suites Nick Suites Resorts (www.nickhotel.com) is offering up to 40 percent off during that time frame while Disney resorts are touting 30 percent off certain weeks and a free dining plan (www.disneyworld.disney.go.com/special-offers/). Kudos to the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin (www.swananddolphin.com), which doesn’t limit kids to the kids’ menu with their kids-eat-free (under 10) deal that’s part of the resort’s Love Your Family package that also includes special Mickey Vision glasses to watch the fireworks (think Mickey appearing in the lights). Rates start at just $139.
It’s also cooler in Orlando in the fall and rides like the new SeaWorld attraction won’t require hourlong waits. (Stay at a SeaWorld partner hotel and you can get in an hour early.)
You can opt for a “wild ride” with Puck, which really isn’t that wild. Kids just need to be 42 inches tall. Even toddlers can ride on the milder version, as long as they can sit up and be strapped in the seat belt. “Really fun!” said 11-year-old Bethanie Brown, who was visiting from a neighboring Florida town. She said she and her two friends entertained each other during the long wait. “I’ve never seen penguins this close before,” she said. “They’re really cute!”
There are lessons about climate change along the way. Even the souvenirs are designed to bring home the message. For $15.95, as part of SeaWorld’s Cup That Cares Program, kids can design their own reusable penguin cup, and every time they buy a drink, they learn how much CO2 they’ve saved. Of course, they can fill the bottle with water, too. SeaWorld donates $1 from each purchase to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund that helps protect wildlife around the world.