I don't know if you are aware of this, but we penguins have our pride. In my case, I'm no run-of-the-mill bird. I'm a King penguin, in fact--bred for blizzards at the bottom of the world.
Call it retirement if you want, but one day, I found myself stationed in Florida of all places, flipper-to-flipper with 250 of my friends: fellow King, Gentoo, Adélie and Rockhopper penguins. Just what, under the sun, was going on?
A theme park attraction, that's what. Namely, SeaWorld Orlando's much advertised "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin." The longtime home of Shamu the whale and the TurtleTrek experience, this is SeaWorld's southern strategy: its attempt to simulate a "dangerous voyage to the coldest and windiest continent," to where ice can end up more than 9,000-feet thick and temperatures sink to -129 °F.
Before Antarctica's official opening, penguins from the park barnstormed around the country to promote the venture, making guest appearances at travel shows and on TV. I didn't make the travel team, but according to SeaWorld's Suzanne Pelisson-Beasley, the park's handlers bought each penguin its own airline seat in coach. "Actually," she says, "each carrier stretches over two seats and contains two penguins. They have to use a seatbelt extender, of course. The airlines and passengers were really good about it. On Southwest, they even let well-behaved birds take some walks in the aisle."
SeaWorld handed out thousands of Antarctica 'passports' to help hype up our new habitat along with the high-tech ride that blows gusts of wind at visitors while whirling them past imitation glaciers and under giant icicles. "The coldest attraction on earth," brags the document (which I was pleased to note has an attractive penguin motif instead of the usual eagle): "Join the epic voyage."
Visitors entering Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin find themselves surrounded with artificial glacier walls that are embedded with tiny tumbled glass balls to imitate the sparkle of real Antarctic ice. I don't know who's in charge of counting these things, but the attraction has about 2,500 Pyrex and glass fake icicles. Many of these mini-sculptures are hand-blown.
Those lining up for the Antarctica ride weave through cave-like compartments that get chillier and chillier in an attempt to toughen up tourists for the type of temperatures that we chubbier birds enjoy. Next, they get spun and jolted on trackless vehicles that move like round Zambonis, while they're treated to the onscreen saga of a cartoon waddler named Puck and his family as they try to make the best of harsh Antarctic conditions. If they can still stand up at this point, they're dropped off at the main attraction: live penguins.
That's us, of course. Our habitat here, which is bigger and more dramatically-sculpted than at most zoos, is kept, I'm pleased to report, at a pleasant 30 degrees (°F) and our LED lighting is supposed to approximate seasonal night and day in Antarctica itself. At certain times of the year, we sleep until 10:30 am, or even later, so--fair warning--no flash pictures are allowed until then. The best part, in my opinion, is the underwater viewing area where you stand and stare at a two-storey pane of glass, and we swim like crazy, perform nearly-impossible spin moves, and show off even more than seals or otters.
Though this isn't always totally fulfilling for us in an artistic sense, it beats trying to scrape out a living at the real South Pole. According to Brian Morrow, Empire of the Penguin creative director and lead designer, the whole project really isn't supposed to be referred to as a ride or even as an attraction. "This is a realm," insists Morrow. "It's nature-based, not fantasy, and fully immersive."
Morrow points out that even the ride vehicles, themselves, behave like animals. "At first, he says, "when you get on board, they wobble a little, like the baby penguin in the movie, as if they're unsure of themselves." Not to mention the fact that, according to a park fact-sheet, Antarctica is the world's only theme park attraction with a "trackless ride system that allows guests the choice of picking the intensity level, coupled with a variable ride path."
Morrow, himself, hasn't taken any research trips to Antarctica the continent but he and colleagues were so determined to fine-tune the attraction (sorry, realm) that they hired cultural scientists "from Philadelphia" to find out why humans love penguins so much. The verdict? "It's because they move like our kids. Like toddlers."
Well, enough about park management. Not to sound arrogant, but judging from the crowds so far, it's really our penguin antics that people are coming to see. They clap and whistle as we swim upside down and skid around on fake ice floes and tundra. We are the stars of the hour. Visitors snap pictures as we are fed herring and krill, and then head straight for the Expedition Café (which looks a lot like McMurdo Station) to order plates stacked up with "South of the Equator Baked Chicken" ($11.49) and the "Iceberg Wedge" ($8.79).
Even the café Coke machines have pictures of penguins on them. Energetic penguins. Positive penguins.
Maybe, come to think of it, there are worse places to spend one's golden years.
Peter Mandel is the author of the read-aloud bestseller Jackhammer Sam (Macmillan/Roaring Brook) and other books for kids, including Zoo Ah-Choooo (Holiday House) and Bun, Onion, Burger (Simon & Schuster).