Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SeaWorld Orlando to unveil big expansion: 3 new attractions

TurtleTrek is set to open in 2012, an attraction SeaWorld said will take guests on the life journey of a sea turtle. Guests will first pass through a pair of aquariums, one with manatees and the other with sea turtles, and then enter a first-of-its-kind, domed, 3D theater. Images of sea turtles, created in what SeaWorld called "hyper-real" CGI, will appear to swim around and above guests. (SeaWorld Orlando)

SeaWorld Orlando is expected to announce today what park officials call the biggest expansion in the resort's history, with three new attractions to be built over the next two years.

The plans include two additions scheduled to debut next spring: TurtleTrek, a manatee and sea-turtle habitat that will include a first-of-its-kind, three-dimensional and 360-degree movie experience; and Freshwater Oasis, a new area in SeaWorld's limited-admission park Discovery Cove. Oasis guests will be able to swim, wade and hike through a rainforest-themed environment that will include encounters with Asian otters and small monkeys known as marmosets.

Those two projects will be followed a year later by the biggest addition of all: Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin, an area within the main park themed to the snowy continent that will include a new attraction that SeaWorld says will feature never-before-used ride technology.

Although company officials did not disclose a price tag, SeaWorld Orlando President Terry Prather said the additions, taken together, represent the largest expansion in the marine park's 38-year history, both in terms of cost and footprint.

With the expansion — which has been urged by SeaWorld's corporate owner, the private-equity firm Blackstone Group — SeaWorld hopes to win back some of the ground it has lost during the past two years to Walt Disney World and, particularly, to Universal Orlando, which in June 2010 opened its wildly popular Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

SeaWorld Orlando attendance fell an estimated 12 percent in 2010, even as the number of visitors overall to Orlando soared above 50 million for the first time.

Company officials say SeaWorld Orlando attendance has improved this year and that Discovery Cove, which this summer opened a new attraction dubbed the Grand Reef, is in the midst of a record year. The company's three Orlando parks, which also include the water park Aquatica, account for roughly 40 percent of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's total operating income, according to industry analysts.

Prather said the timing of the expansion is ideal.

"When you look at last year, doing 51 million visitors to Orlando, and then look around the country, look around the world at some of these [other] destinations, … it's crystal clear around the world that Orlando is the No. 1 family destination," Prather said. "Our owners see that as a big plus."

Importantly, SeaWorld said, all three additions will be suitable for visitors of all ages.

Guests at TurtleTrek, for instance, will first walk through a pair of massive aquariums, one filled with hundreds of freshwater fish and manatees, the other with more than 1,500 saltwater fish and more than a dozen sea turtles. They will then enter a domed theater, where a 3-D film about the life journey of a sea turtle will be projected all around them — even above them. The entire experience will last about 18 minutes.

"Content will be all around you," said Brian Morrow, SeaWorld Orlando's chief designer.

The attraction, which will use space most recently occupied by SeaWorld's Manatee Rescue pavilion, will include an explicit conservation theme urging guests to become "everyday heroes" in wildlife protection. A post-show gift shop will include physical and environmental effects triggered whenever guests purchase items from which a portion of proceeds will be donated to a company-founded conservation fund.

Freshwater Oasis at Discovery Cove will be designed with a rainforest canopy above freshwater springs. SeaWorld said guests will be free to explore at their own pace, wading and hiking through flooded trails that will take them through habitats with otters and marmosets — animals that SeaWorld said were chosen because they are small, kid-friendly and active. The oasis will replace a now-closed saltwater reef that had been leaking into the area's underground aquifer.

In contrast to Grand Reef — a deeper, saltwater pool that includes an underwater experience — SeaWorld said Freshwater Oasis will be shallower and accessible to all guests. "Ensuring that everybody gets to participate is key to our brand," Morrow said.

SeaWorld discussed fewer details in advance about Antarctica — Empire of the Penguin, which company officials said will be the park's biggest-yet single-attraction expansion.

Replacing the park's 24-year-old Penguin Encounter habitat, the new attraction's central experience will be a "family adventure attraction," suitable for people of all ages, in which guests will experience life in Antarctica through the eyes of a penguin. Morrow said the attraction will be "a new species of ride," with an innovative system that allows different adventures to occur during each ride. The experience will also include close interactions with penguins.

SeaWorld said the Antarctica-themed expansion will be a more-immersive experience than just a single ride.

"It will be a new world within the park," Prather said. "It's a new realm that we're building." or 407-420-5414

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