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SeaWorld Orlando opens new penguin exhibit

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Saturday, May 25, 2013 - 12:01 am

ORLANDO, Fla. — Now there's real-life summer heat relief in Florida, and it is cool.

On Friday, SeaWorld Orlando opened its “Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin” attraction. With a ride, restaurants and 250 live penguins, it's the largest expansion in the park's history.

“Through our research, we found that penguins are a very popular species,” said Terry Prather, vice president of park operations. “Initially, we thought it was just with kids. But as we developed this attraction, we found that adults like penguins just as much as kids, and we've seen adults act just like kids when they're around them.”

The entrance to the area greets visitors with glacier- and icicle-themed walls, while the restaurant offers iceberg lettuce wedges and refillable cups to help cut down on plastic waste.

A ride takes visitors through a queue, themed around Puck, a fictional baby penguin hatched right before a menacing blizzard. The first thing visitors notice is the pleasant air-conditioned temperature once the line snakes inside — and how the temperature keeps dropping as you continue along the journey.

Visitors are asked to choose between “mild” or “wild” rides — which determines how their cars will move. Then a circular car whisks them past videos of Puck and his family, and past brilliantly colored — psychedelic, even — decorations.

The “mild” ride is appropriate for kids — no upside-down roller coasters here, although there is a height restriction — and adults will appreciate the funky scenery and grand music.

“The only way Puck can survive is through family,” Prather explained. “That's how we make it through the world every day. Without those family connections, we wouldn't do what we do.”

A video shows Puck plunging into the icy Antarctic water, then chased by a ferocious-looking seal. He makes it to shore, with his penguin family and friends nearby.

By the time the ride passes through blasts of simulated blizzard air, all memory of Florida's humidity is gone.

Then come the real stars of the show: the real, live penguins. The ride ends at the penguin habitat — it's easy to forget you are exiting the car as you gape at the chubby, fuzzy king penguin babies.

By the time you reach that point in the experience, it's 30 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius).

“You're experiencing what the penguins like,” said Mike Boos, the park's vice president of zoological operations.

In addition to the large king penguins, there are also gentoos, rockhoppers and adelie penguins of various sizes. On the Thursday morning media tour, several penguins skimmed along the surface of the water, splashing and playing in the various tanks and along the simulated Antarctic landscape. A pack of them even swam briskly past TV personality and zoologist Jack Hanna's head as he gave an interview.

“This is the closest thing, I mean, how many people get to go to Antarctica?” Hanna said “Nobody. It's at the bottom of the world, and this is the closest you're going to get to it.”