Monday, May 27, 2013

Review of Antarctica--Empire of the Penguin (pics)

SeaWorld Orlando premiered a new attraction this weekend in the form of Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin. It's very much a lush Disney-style production with high-end design values and the big budget for theming. Be sure to scroll to the bottom for the pictures! 

Some of the reaction online has been muted, at least publicly. In private, I've heard several folks would have been on the ride express actual disappointment. I'm pretty sure the problem is one of setting expectations. I didn't experience the attraction until Monday night, by which time I had already seen a number of bland reviews, and had been told to lower my expectations. I went in expecting something on the level of the Living Seas, therefore, and what I found greatly exceeded this lowered expectation. The ride should not be pumped up as an E-Ticket experience. It's not thrilling in the physical sense. Nor is it all consuming as a theme attraction, the way a dark ride such as Tokyo's version of Winnie the Pooh is. The ride does share the trackless technology of Tokyo's honeypot ride, however, so perhaps comparisons here are inevitable. The Tokyo ride is superior in every way, primarily because it is much longer, it does inventive things like make everyone bounce along with the screen, and it has established and beloved characters to show us around every corner.

The Orlando attraction has set pieces alone. They try to create a character for us, a baby penguin named Puck, but it's hard to get invested in only a few minutes and it really cannot compete with Winnie the Pooh. Just like you cannot make a great novel with setting alone, you cannot make a premier theme park attraction with just fantastic set pieces. However, you can come pretty close, and Antarctica does come pretty close. It's an absolutely successful dark ride that does some of the same tricks as the Tokyo Disney attraction, such as dispatching cars in a cohort and having them dance around the room in a complicated ballet. The technology involved is very impressive, and the cars not only move around, they also spin around and if you're taking the Wild version of the ride. The spinning adds some definite interest to an otherwise sedate pace. The cars are also simulators, and each one comes with its own motion base. This is put to good use, adding even more zest to the journey around the room.

There is something aimless about how and why we move throughout the large set pieces, however. There doesn't seem to be a compelling story reason behind it, and neither do the cars moved with enough frenetic energy to give it a real pop. The result is that this medium-speed pace feels slightly out of place. The ride is not slow and majestic, but neither is it frantic and thrilling. That might be okay if the story was compelling enough, but I'm not sure that it is.

The set design, on the other hand, truly is compelling. I would venture to say that the level of decoration is on par with a Disney attraction. It's very expensive to provide this kind of 360° rock work, but they clearly spared no expense when creating Antarctica. Many of the rooms use physical sets, but others will blend in video screens, often with great success and quite fluidly.

The ride portion is pretty short, and after just a couple of rooms we are already invited to disembark and wander through the penguin exhibits. Given the attraction poster, I had assumed that the ride vehicles went through the area where the penguins are, but this is not the case. Instead, after we disembark we can see the penguins in an enclosure right next to us. Unlike the original version of the penguin exhibit, where they were behind glass, this is an open air exhibit. The penguins are often mere inches away from you, and it's easy to see how they might pop out of the enclosure if they wanted to, as indeed they have done a couple of times already. They are being trained to stay inside, however, without resorting to oversized glass walls.

I liked that you could down spend as much time as you want with the penguins. Previously, you could only get close by going on the moving sidewalk, but now anyone who wants to can truly linger. I'm not sure that many will linger much in the summer months, if they're dressed for the warm weather, since it's so cold here with the penguins. But it's nice to give the choice to the guests themselves.

The land they have built around this attraction is impressive in its own right. A veritable Fortress of Solitude, the carved ice walls glistening with fake snow and azure-colored ice pockets loom high overhead as though ready to calve off from a glacier at any moment. Gigantic icicles pledge simulated danger from above. I haven't seen this area at night yet, but I bet it will be spectacular.

The merchandise shop got a facelift but doesn't seem too different in form and function. The food operations, however, are completely new. The café here offers scramble style service, which is always a blessing and a curse because they can be vexing to have to stand in three separate lines for everything your family needs.

There's a good amount of seating nearby, with our favorite being the fully enclosed and air-conditioned dining hall in the back. It's crammed full of junk and might, at first glance, remind you of the wild Arctic attraction. But with the voiceover radio and narration, I'm more reminded of Restaurantosaurus in Animal Kingdom, but in a ripoff kind of way rather than a flattering one.

The food was actually pretty good. We liked most of the things on the pasta and sandwich menu, and the kids meals were good values at the station for Asian food. Only the macaroni and cheese disappointed at the American station — it just seemed to lack flavor entirely.

Obviously, most visitors won't be coming here for the food, but rather the new ride. SeaWorld has never had a true dark ride before, but they have one now. However, it's crucial that you not get your hopes up too high for this attraction. Because it's new, it attracts a lot of attention, with the result that lines can be pretty long. Compounding the problem is the fact that the workers aren't very good yet at gauging how long it will take to wait through the line. We waited almost 3 hours at a moment when the posted wait time said 90 minutes. Part of the delay was certainly due to some ride downtime just before we got to the loading area, but that wasn't all of it. It was odd that this same shutdown played out without any announcements to the visitors standing in line. It just simply stopped moving for almost 30 minutes, and then it started moving again.

The bottom line is that this is a good attraction, and we will not only be back for it, we will be happy to wait in line for it. But not a three-hour line, and probably not even a one-hour line. But half an hour? Yes, we would probably do that. A ride like this fills in a gaping hole that had been in SeaWorld’s lineup of attractions, and it makes the park a more well-rounded experience now.

Kevin Yee is the author of numerous independent Disney books, including the popular Walt Disney World Earbook series and Walt Disney World Hidden History.