It’s a beautifully warm day in central Florida and I am stroking a penguin. “Jo”, a rockhopper, leans against my hand, while another penguin, a pink-footed gentoo, tries to climb on to the shoes of my guide, Jim Groener.
When the two penguins waddle towards each other, squawking and pecking, I automatically put out my hand to separate them. Tricia McDeed, an aviculturist who looks after the birds, laughs: “I can tell that you have kids.”
We’re behind the scenes at SeaWorld Orlando with 247 clamorous penguins – king, gentoo, rockhopper and Adélie – who are about to become the stars of a unique theme park attraction. Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, which opens on May 24, has the bold ambition of recreating the Antarctic wastes in balmy Florida and letting visitors “walk with penguins in their world”. It will, say its creators, be the coldest theme park attraction in the world – kept at a constant temperature of -1C and with five tons of freshly-made snow pumped in each day.
The penguins certainly seem at home. McDeed explains that the birds here are all descended from eggs collected in the wild in the 1960s and 1970s. Jo the rockhopper is hand-reared, the gentoo is parent-reared, and both seem equally inquisitive and friendly. An arm’s length away, three king penguins stand wing to wing behind a low barrier, watching us beadily. Behind them another king penguin stands motionless beneath an ice shower, wings outstretched, beak pointing up. To my right a clutch of Adélie penguins is busy hopping and splashing in a pool.
SeaWorld won’t disclose the budget for its Antarctica attraction but says it represents the largest expansion since the park opened in 1973. Construction began in January 2012 and the exhibit covers a four-acre site. Much of it is taken up by a vast, white building housing the penguin habitat and the high-tech theme park ride that is the other key part of the attraction. Around it are fir trees and “icebergs” up to 50ft high, built of concrete on metal frames and dripping with toughened-glass icicles.
The shop and eating areas are housed in Quonset huts, prefabricated, corrugated steel structures like those used in the past at scientific research bases in Antarctica.
Once inside the main building, visitors board eight-seater vehicles that resemble giant ice hockey pucks; these transport them through a series of rooms, each colder than the last. Large screens show an animated story about a young penguin, and the computer-controlled vehicles’ motion is designed to mimic that of the animal’s – gliding smoothly when it slides on its stomach, bumping as it stumbles.
Rather than moving along a track, the vehicles move independently, allowing operators to offer “mild” rides for parents with very young children, and faster “wild” rides for thrill-seekers.
At the end of the ride, visitors find themselves in the penguins’ cold, windy habitat, separated from the birds by nothing more than a transparent wall less than 3ft high. Visitors follow a path through the icy enclosure and can stay among the birds as long as they can bear the cold.
“People are going to hear penguins, they are going to smell penguins and they are going to get extremely close to them,” says Mike Boos, head of zoological operations at the park.
The attraction’s designers claim the encounters will be unlike those possible at any other theme park or zoo but committed wildlife lovers can get closer still. From June, visitors will be able to sign up for a 45-minute “penguins up close” tour, hearing from the keepers, and meeting and stroking Jo, his gentoo friend, and the rest of the colony.
Gretta Schifano was a guest of SeaWorld Orlando and British Airways. Tickets cost from $79 for adults, $71 for children. British Airways offer a week at the Renaissance Orlando at SeaWorld, and flights from London, from £819 per person