SeaWorld Orlando ups ante to battle wizards, princesses, aliens

Los Angeles Times staff writer

SeaWorld Orlando has announced a multi-year plan to add a 3-D movie, a swim-with-sea-life attraction and a new themed land in an effort to counter increasing competition in Florida’s crowded theme park marketplace.

The largest and most expensive expansion in the marine park’s 38-year history comes on the heels of the successful debuts of Universal Orlando’s Wizarding World of Harry Potter in 2010 and Legoland Florida in 2011. During that same period, Walt Disney World announced plans to open a Fantasyland makeover at the Magic Kingdom starting in 2012 and Avatar Land at Disney’s Animal Kingdom starting in 2015.

At the same time, SeaWorld saw attendance drop 12% in 2010 even as Orlando tourism improved thanks in part to the new additions.

> Photos: SeaWorld Orlando unveils new attractions for 2012 and 2013

Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, the largest component of SeaWorld’s expansion, will transform the 24-year-old Penguin Encounter habitat into a new winter themed land by spring 2013. Concept art of the new Antarctica land shows 55-foot-tall glaciers in the shape of nuzzling penguins towering over shops, restaurants and an as-yet-unannounced attraction.

SeaWorld remains highly secretive about the new attraction, describing it only as a one-of-a-kind, family-friendly yet thrilling interactive ride offering varied adventures from a penguin’s point of view.

Dubbed the world’s coldest theme park attraction, the new ride promises to bring visitors into close interaction with penguins (likely in the queue area).

Based on the limited description, the new Antarctica ride sounds similar to the remade Star Tours motion simulator ride featuring multiple story lines at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida and Disneyland in California.

In spring 2012, SeaWorld Orlando will also open the TurtleTrek 3-D film projected on a first-of-its-kind 360-degree domed theater.

Before loading into the theater, visitors will pass an aquarium filled with freshwater fish and manatees and another tank with saltwater fish and sea turtles.

The six-minute computer-generated movie will employ 34 projectors aimed at the theater’s domed ceiling to take visitors on an underwater journey from a sea turtle’s perspective.

The new theater, which replaces the Manatee Rescue pavilion, sounds like a cross between a planetarium and the Circle-Vision theaters found at Epcot in Florida and formerly at Disneyland in California.

Also in spring 2012, the Freshwater Oasis swim-with-sea life lazy river will debut at Discovery Cove, SeaWorld’s adjacent boutique park.

Visitors to the limited-admission park will be able to wade through a rain forest-themed pool alongside Asian river otters as marmosets swing in an overhead canopy of trees.

Construction has already begun on the TurtleTrek and Freshwater Oasis attractions. Work is scheduled to begin on the new Antarctica section in January.

SeaWorld Orlando officials have gone to great lengths to emphasize that the three new attractions will not appear at its sister parks in San Diego, California and San Antonio.