Share This Page

SeaWorld's Antarctica latest challenge to Disney

| Saturday, May 25, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

Three years ago, Harry Potter loosened Mickey Mouse's grip on Orlando's theme-park market.

Now, Puck the Penguin is ready to try pulling Mickey's fingers even farther apart.

After more than a year of construction, SeaWorld Orlando this week will open Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, a nearly 4-acre, multiattraction “land” built to look like the icy continent and starring an animated gentoo penguin named Puck.

Orlando-based SeaWorld Entertainment Inc., which just completed a $700 million public stock offering, has enormous expectations for Antarctica, the largest expansion in SeaWorld history. Company President and Chief Executive Officer Jim Atchison calls the project “a real game-changer for us.”

But beyond simply boosting SeaWorld's fortunes, industry analysts say Antarctica has the potential to alter the Orlando market, which historically has been dominated by Walt Disney World.

During the past decade, Disney World's central growth strategy has been to persuade travelers to spend their full vacations on its property, lured by programs such as sliding-scale ticket prices and a free airport shuttle. But that model has been challenged recently by Universal Orlando, which has attracted millions of visitors to its parks on the strength of the 3-year-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

With Antarctica, analysts say, SeaWorld has an opportunity to continue that shift.

“Antarctica, in my mind, is a really good test of how different the Orlando landscape has become,” said Bob Boyd, a leisure analyst at Pacific Asset Management, a California investment-management company.

Antarctica is SeaWorld's entry into a parade of lavishly designed “lands” that U.S. theme-park owners are building across the country after the success of Universal's Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Universal parent Comcast Corp. is copying Wizarding World at its West Coast park and will add a second Potter land — Diagon Alley — next year in Orlando. The Walt Disney Co. last year opened Cars Land at Disneyland and the initial phases of New Fantasyland at Disney World. It has begun preliminary work on a land based on the movie “Avatar,” also at Disney World and expected to open in 2017.

SeaWorld's Antarctica includes a first-of-its-kind trackless ride and a frigid, walk-through penguin habitat, along with a 325-seat restaurant meant to resemble a multinational mess hall and a penguin-themed gift shop.

The company will not disclose what it spent on Antarctica, though one analyst estimated the cost was substantially less than the $265 million that Universal spent on Wizarding World and the estimated $425 million that Disney is spending on New Fantasyland.

Still, Antarctica is the biggest in a collection of rides and other construction projects on which SeaWorld has spent $420 million combined during the past two years. Executives say they plan to trim their capital spending in the coming years to something closer to $150 million annually.

To maximize the investment, Antarctica will have to do more than drive higher attendance and ticket prices. SeaWorld needs the project to entice guests into spending more on food and souvenirs.

SeaWorld hopes to emulate some of the success Universal has had with “butterbeer” and other Harry Potter-themed food and merchandise in its Islands of Adventure theme park.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.