As we live here in Orlando, we met up with the newly-arrived UK media group for a morning at Busch Gardens, enjoying some coaster time and a viewing of Madagascar LIVE! Operation: Vacation, a brand new high-energy stage show featuring characters from the Madagascar movie series, backed up by a live band, singers, and dancers. Next we hit the savannah on the Serengeti Safari, where giraffes showed us what real party animals are all about. Armed with heads of romaine lettuce we withstood an onslaught of giraffe heads and tongues invading our flatbed truck, grabbing and swallowing and allowing a quick stroke of their necks in return for their salads.
But the main event was at SeaWorld later that evening. International media would be among the first to brave Antarctica, following guide maps that took us from ‘camp to camp’ where we picked up hip flasks with something to warm our innards, torches to light our way, and scarves to keep the chill out. Along the way, Simon was greeted by Prince Larry of the Cotswolds, who felt certain his Kentucky accent was no impediment to his rightful return to the throne, then kissed on both cheeks by a Scotsman in a kilt, in a fit of Highland bonhomie.
Our adventure was shaping up nicely!
A massive glacial archway led to Base Camp, where we were surrounded by the full spectacle of this gleaming, icy world. Towering peaks, glittering blue ice cores, and melt-water forming icicles as it warmed gently in the weak Antarctic sun were our introduction to the Bottom of the World. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959 ensured the region would be used for scientific purposes only, and the food stations set up for us weary travellers reflected a coming together of diverse national cuisines, from Spanish paella to Chinese Orange Chicken to Italian sausage and Southern Chicken with Waffles. But there was no time for noshing; we wanted to see the penguins!
The queue extends more than 200 yards, but tonight we only used the final few. Ushered through the first door, the preshow film, Meet the Family, introduced us to young Puck, a late-hatching Gentoo penguin who needs to seek shelter—and fast—as the first blizzard of the season covers the hatching grounds in powdery white. We followed Puck into an ice cave, where the storm outside created shrieking winds and flashes of colour through icy crevices. “In our vision of that space, called Braving the Storm, you’re not safe yet,” Brian Morrow, Director Creative Development, told us. “As you descend further into the cave you see refracted light, and we call this area Sheltering from the Storm,” he said. Indeed, the whole mood changed. In this peaceful section we would choose how to follow Puck as he explored his world. It was also here that the first hints of Antarctica’s frigid temperatures became evident.
It was certainly chilling, but whether or not it was thrilling was up to us, with a choice of the low motion Mild Ride or the Wild Ride, which adds rocking, twisting, spinning, and bobbing, some of it coordinated to Puck’s on-screen movements. The path is essentially the same; only the amount of movement changes. We rode Wild three times, Mild twice, and cannot say one was better than the other. Because the majority of guests seek a dynamic ride, the queue for Mild was (and likely will be) considerably shorter, so that’s a distinct advantage.
In groups of eight, we entered a small room Brian called the “wonder cube”, formally known as Follow Me. We met Puck again, this time a bit older, as a distant glittery light moved toward him, then enveloped him. He gave a little shake (a move affectionately titled “swish, swish, sparkle” by Brian), casting light across explorers and the room, magically making us part of the story. Now we would see Antarctica as Puck would see it. And this was where the serious experience began.
We boarded our vehicle and were off on an adventure that can only be described as “bumper penguins” without the bumping. Four vehicles travelled through each scene together, darting and spinning and wandering at will. With no tracks to follow, there’s no telling where Puck will go! We entered the Cavern of Light next, then returned to the surface with Puck as he braved a blizzard on his way to the Edge of Ice. Diving into the sea, a hungry seal gives chase, but Puck survives to rejoin his colony.
Here our vehicle turned dramatically, revealing the live penguin habitat. It’s a breathtaking moment, as is stepping out of the vehicle and finding yourself mere inches from King penguins, Rockhoppers, Adelie, and Puck’s own clan, the Gentoo. Standing there in the freezing cold amid the sharp calls of the colony and the faint smell of fish, you could close your eyes and imagine you’re really there, in the very heart of Antarctica, the empire of the penguin. This is the powerful moment; the Wow factor. These beautiful, curious creatures go about their business on land, in the water, and right up close to the see-through barrier, so short it allows the first few feet of the human side to be a serious splash zone. And when the chill factor proves too much there is a second viewing area—this one warm—just beyond a revolving door. The ride itself is short, but the impact of immersing in the penguins’ world is an experience to be savoured, and long remembered.
Look out for our follow up instalment on the Attraction Tickets Direct Latest News next week Wednesday, where we'll hear from the creative minds that brought Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin to life!