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posted: 6/1/2013 6:00 AM

Penguins chill out at new SeaWorld exhibit

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  • "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" is now open at SeaWorld Orlando.

      "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" is now open at SeaWorld Orlando.
    Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

  • "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" is now open at SeaWorld Orlando.

      "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" is now open at SeaWorld Orlando.
    Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

  • A rockhopper penguin is one of many penguins in the new "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" attraction at SeaWorld Orlando.

      A rockhopper penguin is one of many penguins in the new "Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin" attraction at SeaWorld Orlando.
    Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

  • A rockhopper penguin is part of the new exhibit at SeaWorld Orlando.

      A rockhopper penguin is part of the new exhibit at SeaWorld Orlando.
    Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

  • Like humans, penguins find strength in numbers. Strong family and colony bonds help penguins raise chicks in some of the harshest habitats on Earth.

      Like humans, penguins find strength in numbers. Strong family and colony bonds help penguins raise chicks in some of the harshest habitats on Earth.
    Courtesy of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

 
Associated Press

ORLANDO, Fla. -- There comes a time in central Florida -- usually around mid-August, when you step outside and it feels like you're wearing a wet blanket inside an oven nestled in a sauna -- that you start to dream of cold places and cold weather.

Antarctica, snow, penguins: any chilly visualization to relieve the oppressive humidity and heat.

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

SeaWorld Orlando has opened its new exhibit "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, SeaWorld Orlando. "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.

"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. The penguins were all hatched and raised at SeaWorld, said Boos, who typically wears a parka during the hours he spends inside the chilly attraction.

"I can't wait to get back outside," he said, laughing and shivering.

He can speak for himself. The rest of the people in Florida are dreaming of cold weather, and of penguins.

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