SeaWorld Orlando on Tuesday announced the most ambitious expansion in the nearly 40-year history of the theme park, including a sea turtle exhibit with a domed 3-D theater and an immersive penguin experience that promises to drop guests down in the middle of frigid Antarctica.
"TurtleTrek," with huge tanks of live sea turtles and manatees, will feature a first-of-its-kind domed theater with computer-generated 3-D images that will "put guests under water with the animals into an amazing journey into their lives," park president Terry Prather said.
The turtle exhibit will open sometime in the spring of next year along with a new area called "Freshwater Oasis" at SeaWorld's adjacent swim-with-the-dolphins boutique park, Discovery Cove. That attraction will put people in a clear spring under a rainforest-type canopy of trees to swim alongside Asian otters and marmosets.
In spring 2013, SeaWorld will open "Antarctica _ Empire of the Penguin," which officials said is the largest single expansion project ever undertaken at the Orlando park. An artist's rendering shows an entire section of shops and restaurants with an interactive ride at its center, somewhat similar to the wildly successful Harry Potter attraction at Universal Orlando. Parts of the experience will also include a radical temperature change, which will undoubtedly be welcomed by those visiting in the steamy heat of Florida summer.
"This will be the coldest attraction ever constructed," promised Brian Morrow, the park's chief designer.
Prather would not provide a cost estimate for the projects, which are unique to the Orlando park and won't be added at SeaWorld's parks in San Antonio and San Diego. He said there are no immediate plans for a corresponding increase in admission prices. Following the lead of Walt Disney World and Universal, SeaWorld in September added $2 onto the price of a single-day admission ticket, bringing it to $81.99.
The changes at SeaWorld were announced as attendance at central Florida theme parks continues to improve after suffering in a lingering recession and specter of a BP oil spill that kept visitors away from Florida in 2010.
Dennis Speigel, a Cincinnati-based theme park consultant, characterized SeaWorld's expansion plans as "a big move on their part. It follows suit with what Universal did with Harry Potter and what Disney is doing with some of their properties. I think it was needed, and I think it's very timely for SeaWorld Orlando."
Construction is under way on the turtle exhibit and new Discovery Cove attraction. Work on the Antarctica section will begin soon on the site of a current penguin attraction, which will close at some point. Park officials said there will be other opportunities for guests to see penguins while the park is between exhibits.
SeaWorld debuted its first new themed Shamu show in five years in April, a little more than a year after a killer whale dragged a trainer to her death in the tank. The park is spending tens of millions of dollars on new safety features in preparation for trainers to eventually work with the animals in the water again.
SeaWorld is owned by private equity firm Blackstone Group LP.