Before losing its sheen like an iceberg with a bad case of global warming, Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, the new attraction at SeaWorld, is an innovative how'd-they-do-it dazzler. The centerpiece of the park's new tundric landscape, the spinny "dark" thriller pushes the boundaries of ride technology — and keeps creative pace with those theme park foes across Interstate 4.
Well, for a while at least.
Sure, SeaWorld has a bunch of rides, but it's mainly in the Shamu biz. Go for the fish; stay for the Kraken. And yet, Empire of the Penguin does two things that are decidedly Disney in vision. First off, as guests enter the fictional world of baby Puck the Gentoo penguin — and escape 90-degree-plus Florida outside — they are acclimated to increasingly cooler climes: 60 degrees, 40 degrees, and finally 30 degrees, which allows the 250 real penguins, revealed at ride's end in an indoor habitat, to feel as if they never left the igloo.
How is everyone at SeaWorld not getting frostbite? It's 21st century magic, I tell you!
Indeed, the cool-down is a slick trick. It's not jarring; in July, it's awesome. It's also immersive, as the queue makes you feel more and more like, well, frozen fowl. There is all manner of computer-generated animation telling Puck's adorably fuzzy story (alas, more on that in a second). At one point, your li'l penguin pal plays peek-a-boo with you, which ought to help sell an extra 500 Puck plush dolls a day in the inevitable gift shop.
Finally, you are ready to board your ginormous sci-fi curling stone. That is, if Mr. Spock were a curling gold medalist for Vulcan. They're calling this trackless, motion-based ride system state of the art, and they're not kidding. I'm a certified theme park nerd, and these round, gliding vessels — dreamed up by Oceaneering International, which also created Universal's Spider-Man and Transformers rides — are unlike anything I've ever seen or experienced. The ride's first few seconds are the flat-out best, as these omnidirectional cars, using dead reckoning to cross the paths of each other, float and spin and dance, a high-tech ballet that's as soothing as it is fun.
Riders have the option to vote for "wild" or "mild" adventures, but let it be known that wild IS mild. The actual mild? Well, it doesn't boogie much at all. Without those glorious dance moves, Empire of the Penguin is toothless. The three-minute-plus ride soon devolves into a series of large, relatively unadorned screening rooms, as Puck navigates his world both above the ice (happy) and below (look out for that hungry seal).
After such a fantastic, goofy-grin beginning, the rest of the ride is a startling letdown, mainly because the brilliant technology of the ride system is ultimately undercut by the bargain-bin animation in the ride itself — like those Disney knockoff 'toons on the shelves of Walmart. (Who needs Tangled when you can watch Girl's Got Hair for only $2.99!)
Puck's evading the jaws of a predator should be thrilling, dangerous — enough to gleefully freak out your children — especially with the capabilities of the ride car's movement and the size of the enveloping screen. But all immersive elements of the ride are gone by the end. They cut corners in the wrong place. After all, this is Orlando, the most vicious theme-park scrum in the world. You have to be better, smarter, cooler at every turn.
It's hard to fault a ride that unloads into a jaw-dropping splash zone of hundreds of real penguins gamboling about. (Here, they also re-create sunrise and sunset for the birds, another cool trick of acclimation.) And kudos to SeaWorld for its biggest expansion in 50 years; there's a lot to recommend about the entire Antarctica experience. But with wait times currently around 120 minutes, Empire of the Penguin, for all of its stunning innovation, will leave a lot of riders cold for all the wrong reasons.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.