The Gentoo penguin

The Gentoo penguin

By Eileen Ogintz

Tribune Content Agency

Lunch will be served anytime now — fresh fish — and no one has to cook it.

The adults are busy catching up while the kids swim and play, but this isn’t any waterfront playground on a late summer day. This is a unique playground for penguins — “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins” — the largest expansion ever at SeaWorld Orlando.

Welcome to the home of 250 penguins from four different species:

Gentoo is the large penguin with a white band on its head. They’re the fastest penguins, capable of swimming 25 mph! King, the largest penguin in Antarctica, has a vivid orange patch on each side of its head and upper chest. They can dive up to 1,000 feet and hunt food together to protect themselves from predators. Adelie is the classic black-and-white penguin, navigating the ocean using the sun as a guide and Rockhoppers, with their distinctive red eyes, sometimes will leap three times their height out of the ocean to avoid predators. They got their name because they are often hopping from rock to rock.

But before we meet the penguin colony, Puck, an animated Gentoo penguin, takes us on a penguin-eye tour of the South Pole. Some of the “glaciers” are 50 feet tall, and the icicles were hand blown (of Pyrex) to exactly replicate the clarity of the ice in Antarctica.

It took nearly 400 designers, craftsmen, animators, a symphony orchestra, penguin experts, scenic and lighting designers, as well as ride experts to conceive and build “Antarctica: Empire of the Penguins.” (Even the computerized light system is adjusted to simulate sunrise and sunset in Antarctica. That means if you come in December, it will be bright 20 hours a day.)

Just as Puck, on screen, waddles and slides on the ice, we do the same in our “car” looking at the caverns he is taking refuge in from a blizzard — giant icicles, glowing blue glaciers. “That was the best part,” said 6-year-old Andrew Coit, visiting with his family from New Orleans. “And then we got to see real penguins.”

The Rockhopper Penguin

The Rockhopper Penguin

The penguin habitat mimics Antarctica with wind, snow and cold water, and on the behind-the-scenes tour, we learn it takes some 400 pounds of fish to feed them every day. Come in fall, and you may get to see penguin nests and maybe even baby penguins in the fall.

And until Dec. 20 you can do it for less money. Weekday tickets to SeaWorld and to Busch Gardens Tampa are $50 for adults and kids (as compared to $89 for adults and $81 for children). For an additional $25, guests may add a day’s visit to Aquatica Orlando with the purchase of the SeaWorld Orlando Weekday ticket, or add a day’s visit to Adventure Island in Tampa with the purchase of the Busch Gardens Tampa Weekday Ticket.

There are other pluses to visiting Orlando in fall: It’s Orlando’s “Deal Season” with hotels as low as $64 a night. For example, the all-suites Nick Suites Resorts is offering up to 40 percent off during that time frame while Disney resorts are touting 30 percent off certain weeks and a free dining plan. It’s also cooler and rides like the new SeaWorld attraction won’t require hour-long waits. (Stay at a SeaWorld partner hotel and you can get in an hour early.)  Kudos to the Walt Disney Swan and Dolphin, which doesn’t limit kids to the kids’ menu with their kids-eat-free (under 10) deal that’s part of the resort’s Love Your Family package that also includes special Mickey Vision glasses to watch the fireworks (think Mickey appearing in the lights). Rates start at just $139.


Penguin cups

Penguin cups

Whatever the temperature, you’ll want a sweatshirt at this exhibit, advised Cassie Meitzler, who was here with a 5 year old. Her son had a hard time tolerating the 30-degree temperatures for more than a few minutes, even with the penguins right in front of him.

You can opt for a “wild ride” with Puck, which really isn’t that wild. Kids just need to be 42 inches tall. Even toddlers can ride on the milder version, as long as they can sit up and be strapped in the seat belt. “Really fun!” said 11-year-old Bethanie Brown, who was visiting from a neighboring Florida town. She said she and her two friends entertained each other during the long wait. “I’ve never seen penguins this close before,” she said. “They’re really cute!”

There are lessons about climate change along the way. Did you know 90 percent of our planet’s ice is found in Antarctica, but that it is melting at an alarming rate?

Check out the tri-level viewing area and watch the penguins play in the deep water. (It’s not as freezing here!) The idea is that as we go from warm to freezing temperature, we better understand the unpredictable and harsh environment penguins grapple with constantly.

How can you not love the penguins? They live in one of the harshest environments in the world, yet work together to survive — young penguins even staying together in a penguin version of a day care while their parents go out hunting for fish. Penguin dads share responsibility — even sitting on the nest.

Did you know some penguins stand on their eggs — warming them with their webbed feet?

Penguin supervisor Mark Bishop says this is a great exhibit to teach kids how their actions here, thousands of miles from penguin colonies, can impact them there — everything from global warming to overfishing harm penguin colonies.

Even the souvenirs are designed to bring home the message. For $15.95, kids can design their own reusable penguin cup, choosing the color (pink or neon green), or accessories (necklace, sneakers or tiny Shamu ice cream) and every time they buy a drink, they learn how much CO2 they’ve saved. Of course, they can fill the bottle with water, too. SeaWorld donates $1 from each purchase to the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund that helps protect wildlife around the world.

Antarctica, of course, is largely unexplored, much of it under 9,000 feet of ice, unclaimed by any country. (The Expedition Cafe, in fact, serves food inspired by the United States, Asia and Italy — three of the major countries of the original Antarctic Treaty, which, according to the U.S. State Department, “…demilitarized the Antarctic Continent and provided for its cooperative exploration and future use.”

Outside, kids can compare their height to that of 18 species of penguins whose images are carved into the rocks in the Plaza. There are also kid-friendly touch screens and talks with SeaWorld educators, who underscore how penguin colonies must work together to survive — just like us.