Part of the biggest expansion in SeaWorld Orlando's history is designed to make theme-park guests feel as if they're not in Florida anymore. Instead, they will head south via an immersive "land" known as Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin, set to open in 2013.
"When you enter it, you will know you have entered a different place," Terry Prather, president of SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment's three Orlando parks, said Tuesday in detailing the expansion.
It's a strategy already employed by Universal Orlando with the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, in that resort's Islands of Adventure theme park, and on the drawing boards for Walt Disney World, which intends to construct an area in Disney's Animal Kingdom based on the film "Avatar."
SeaWorld Orlando unveiled on Tuesday the first concrete details and artists' renderings of its two-year, three-pronged expansion. All three additions "were designed specifically for this park and this market. You can't see them or experience them anywhere else on the planet," creative director Brian Morrow said. "They're ours."
The Antarctica drawings show a dark, rugged, snowcapped, stony scene with penguins watching from above. Prather confirmed the new area will incorporate a ride, dining and merchandise outlets.
Experts attribute the renewed interest in themed "lands" to the phenomenal success of Wizarding World, which since its opening in June 2010 has propelled Universal Orlando to record gains in attendance and guest spending on food and merchandise.
"It takes more than just one single ride to really move the checker on the board — the checker being the consumer who comes to Orlando," said Dennis Speigel, a theme-park consultant in Cincinnati. "As we saw during the last two years, Harry Potter really moved the checker."
All-encompassing lands can help drive in-park spending by guests through their highly themed shops and restaurants. The shops in Wizarding World even peddle some Harry Potter products that can't be purchased anywhere else.
"I think that's very important and very much a justification to the board of directors when you say, 'Look, we're going to spend $200 million on this,' or $100 million or $300 million," Speigel said. "It's not just about selling tickets because, as we know in many cases, most of the people who come to the parks in this day and age come on a discounted package. You've got to get the butterbeer and whatever else."
Most details remain under wraps for the Antarctica ride, though it will be the "coldest theme-park attraction in the word," according to SeaWorld officials. The attraction's exact temperature was not shared.
The sit-down ride will follow the journey of a tiny penguin, said Morrow, the creative director.
The project is already well into its planning stages. "We are riding prototypes," he said.
Construction walls for Antarctica are scheduled to go up in January. The new area will be built in the Penguin Plaza portion of the park.
Two other new attractions are set to open next spring.
Upon entering TurtleTrek, guests will first pass through a pair of aquariums, one with manatees and the other with sea turtles, and then enter a first-of-its-kind, domed, 3-D theater. Images of sea turtles, created in what SeaWorld called "hyper-real" CGI, will appear to swim around and above guests.
The film will follow the life of a female turtle, starting from the nest, Morrow said. Along the way, guests will encounter several oceans, other animals, shipwrecks and danger — both natural and man-made, he said.
TurtleTrek is under construction on the previous site of the Manatee Rescue attraction.
Also new next year will be Freshwater Oasis, in SeaWorld's limited-admission park Discovery Cove. Guests will wade through a rain-forest spring as small marmoset monkeys play in the canopy around them. Visitors will then enter a faux sinkhole and wind up swimming alongside Asian river otters. The area will include secluded, private beaches and a swim-up lounge dubbed Flooded Terrace.
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