ORLANDO — Michael Boos is a very popular guy. Dozens of his friends rush to him when he walks into the room, squawking and tweeting as they waddle. “Hi Cobie,” Boos says to the king penguin leaning against his leg. “Hey, Jasper,” he says to the gentoo standing at his toes. “Did you get your fill of fish this morning?”
Boos, dressed in a heavy overcoat, hat, and gloves — despite the sweltering 82 degrees outside — is vice president of zoological operations at SeaWorld, and ultimately in charge of its colony of more than 250 cold-weather penguins.
“They all have their own personalities,” he says, pointing to the growing flock of penguins gathered around him. “I can’t wait to see how they like their new home.”
That new home, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, opens May 24. It’s Orlando’s coldest attraction and SeaWorld’s largest expansion ever, taking visitors on a state-of-the-art adventure ride into the icy world of Antarctica, and offering a one-of-a-kind close encounter with the colony of penguins. Designers are calling it an “all-new realm” including multiple environments and chambers, a unique thrill ride, an expansive penguin habitat, a gift shop, and a restaurant.
“Guests will be able to experience the wonders and dangers of Antarctica, to take a peek at what it might be like to go to this extreme and unpredictable world,” says Brian Morrow, senior director of attraction development and design.
It begins with a story. You’ve traveled to the coldest, windiest place on earth. A blizzard is on its way, when you meet Puck, a gentoo penguin just hatching out of its egg. The very real-looking, digitized Puck (based on studies of SeaWorld’s resident penguins) guides you on a journey, seeking shelter from the storm. You see the world through Puck’s eyes, as you travel through Antarctica. Puck grows older and the temperature continues to drop as you move through chambers, slowly preparing you for the actual penguin habitat.
But first, there’s the ride, featuring a first-in-the-world, high-tech trackless ride system that senses other vehicles and assigns vehicle movement paths. The intelligent traffic navigation system allocates vehicles along one of four routes and then looks at other ride vehicles to adjust movement and directions.
“The result is that guests have a different ride experience each time” says Morrow. “The new system allowed us to create the unpredictability that Antarctica is known for.”
The ride features another theme park first: a mechanism that allows you to select your own level of adventure; options feature more speed, bumps, slides, pitches, spins, and rolls. There is no height restriction, so if young children can sit on their own, they can ride with their family members. Designing a ride that the whole family could enjoy together was an important consideration, according to park executives.
“Penguins are much like humans; they’re very family oriented,” says Morrow. “They share in the raising of their young. They have to stick together and help one another in order to survive the harsh conditions.”
After the ride, guests enter the snowy penguin habitat, the new home for SeaWorld’s gentoos, rockhoppers, adelies, and kings. It’s a comfortable (for penguins) 30 degrees, and the birds are everywhere. You can stay as long as you like to observe the birds.
“You get a chance to experience the cold environment,” says Boos. “You’re going to see the birds, smell the birds, hear the birds. All of your senses are going to come into play here. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience.”
Will all these people invading their new home stress out the penguins? Park officials say that the habitat’s design allows the penguins to avoid their visitors.
“But penguins are quite social and naturally curious creatures,” Morrow says. “The first time I ever met one was at the beginning of this project. They came right up and stood by me. It was amazing.
“I wanted our guests to share that space and connection with the birds, to experience it firsthand,” he says, “to have that same sense of awe and inspiration.”
While the new fast-paced, high-tech ride is the marquee attraction, it’s the visit to the chilly penguin habitat and close encounters with its cold-weather creatures that is likely to leave you most thrilled.
Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin: For more information, visit www.SeaWorldOrlando.com/Antarctica.