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SeaWorld – South End: Wild Arctic

Rating: * * * for ride * * * * * for exhibit
Type: Simulator ride plus a spectacular habitat
Time: 5 minutes for the ride; as long as you want for the habitat
Kelly says: A SeaWorld must-see

That large, techno-modern, warehouse-like building near Shamu Stadium houses one of SeaWorld’s most popular attractions — a devilishly clever combination of thrill ride with serene aquatic habitat. All in all, this is one of the most imaginative attractions in Orlando. Mercifully, the waiting line snakes through an area that is shielded from the blazing sun, because the lines can get long.

Tip: To avoid long waits, you will be well advised to see Wild Arctic early in the morning. Another option is to visit during performances at nearby Shamu Stadium. But time your visit carefully; the waiting line fills up very quickly when the Shamu show empties out.

During our wait, we are entertained by a fascinating video presentation on the lifestyle of the Inuit peoples who inhabit the frozen realm of the Arctic. And during our slow journey through the line, we are asked to make an important decision: Do we want to take the helicopter ride to the base station or do we want to go by land? It’s a choice between “motion” and “non-motion” and it can be important.

The Wild Arctic Ride

If you choose to take the helicopter, be prepared for a whale of a simulator ride (you should pardon the expression). We begin our journey by crossing a metal bridge into the vehicle itself. Once all 59 voyagers are strapped in, the staff exits, the doors close, and the “helicopter” takes off.

The ride, which lasts all of about five minutes, simulates a flight aboard an amphibious (not to mention submersible) helicopter to a research station deep within the Arctic Circle. Despite the gale warnings crackling over the radio, our friendly pilot can’t help doing a little sightseeing, including putting the rotors into “whisper mode” so we can drop in on a polar bear family, and dipping below the waves for a glimpse of a narwhal. But his unscheduled detours exact their price and soon we are caught in that gale. At first the pilot prudently puts down on a glacier to await a better reading on the weather but the glacier gives way and we plummet headlong towards the icy waters below.

At the last second, the pilot gets the rotors whirling and we zoom away from certain death. Next, he decides we’ll be safer flying through a crevasse, away from the howling winds, but we fly straight into and through an avalanche. Finally, we break through into the clear and the Arctic base station lies dead ahead.

It’s a real stomach-churner and remarkably realistic. As I write these words I realize that I’m becoming a little queasy just remembering it all. The action is fast, abrupt, and violent. You’ll find yourself being tossed from side to side as you grip the armrests and scream — in excitement or terror, depending on your mood.

Those who choose the “non-motion” alternative for their voyage to the Wild Arctic, are escorted past the three simulators to a stationary room where they watch the same video, before entering the Arctic base station.

Tip: The non-motion line moves much, much faster than the line for the simulator ride. If you are pressed for time, you might want to consider making the ultimate sacrifice (or use this as an excuse for missing what can be a very scary ride).

Note: You may want to take an over the counter medication before you head for the park if you are prone to motion sickness but would like to experience the ride.

The Wild Arctic Aquatic Habitat

Once you wobble off the simulator ride, you enter SeaWorld’s most elaborately conceived aquatic habitat, one that would have been a five-star attraction even without the exhilarating thrill ride that proceeds it.

The conceit here is that scientists have discovered the wrecked ships from the expedition of John Franklin, a real-life British explorer who disappeared in 1845 while searching for the nonexistent Northwest Passage. The wreck, it seems, has drawn a wide variety of wildlife seeking shelter and prey, so the scientists “stabilized” the wreck and constructed their observation station around it.

The first “room” of the habitat simulates an open-air space, with the domed ceiling standing in for the Arctic sky. A sign informs us that we are 2,967 miles from SeaWorld in Florida. Gray beluga whales (the name is derived from the Russian word for “white”) are being fed in a pool directly in front of us. Thankfully, SeaWorld has not attempted to mimic Arctic temperatures.

Next, we enter the winding tunnels of the research station proper. The walls alternate between the ancient wood of the wrecked vessels and the corrugated steel of the modern structure. We view the animals through thick glass walls; on the other side, temperatures are maintained at comfortably frigid levels for their Arctic inhabitants.

Art imitates reality here in the form of the SeaWorld research assistants, clad in their distinctive red parkas. They are here to answer guests’ questions but they are also carrying out valuable scientific research by painstakingly recording the behavior patterns of the polar bears and other animals in the exhibits in an attempt to find ways to short-circuit the repetitive motion patterns that befall many animals in captivity. One strategy has been to hide food in nooks and crannies of the habitat, encouraging the animals to use true-to-nature hunting behaviors to find their food. By the way, the fish swimming with the polar bears usually avoid winding up on the dinner table, although the bears sometimes just can’t resist taking a swipe at them.

For most people, the highlight of this habitat will be the polar bears, including the famous twins Klondike and Snow, born in the Denver Zoo, abandoned by their mother, nursed through infancy by their zookeepers, and then placed with SeaWorld as the facility best equipped to nurture them to adulthood. Klondike and Snow alternate in the main viewing area with two older bears. Polar bears are solitary animals so the two pairs are kept separate to avoid any unpleasant scenes. As brother and sister, Klondike and Snow enjoy playing together and, thanks to being raised in captivity, they may never have to be separated.

There are also enormous walruses swimming lazily in a separate pool. Harbor seals appear in a video presentation showing the animals in their natural habitat. The narration is cleverly disguised as the radio transmissions of the scientists gathering the footage for research purposes.

After viewing the animals on the surface, we walk down a series of ramps to an underwater viewing area for a completely different and utterly fascinating perspective. Video monitors show what’s happening on the surface and simple controls allow visitors to move the cameras remotely to follow the animals when they climb out of the pool. The set decoration below the surface is every bit as imaginative as it is above, simulating the Arctic Sea beneath the ice shelf.

There’s much to explore here, including displays that let kids crawl through a simulated polar bear den or poke their heads through the ice, just like a seal. Dotted throughout the exhibit are touch-sensitive video monitors that let us learn more about the animals we are viewing and the environment in which they live. Just before the exit ramp, a small room offers a variety of interactive entertainments.

One lets you plan a six-week expedition to the North Pole, selecting the mode of transportation, date of departure, food supply, and wardrobe. Then you get to find out how wisely you planned. Another computer offers up a printout that tells, among other interesting facts, how many people have been born since the date of your birth.

Note: During the past several holiday seasons, SeaWorld has transformed this attraction into the Polar Express Experience, based on the popular picture book and creepy CGI Tom Hanks film. Incoherently-edited clips from the movie are poorly synchronized to the shaking simulators of the ride portion (redressed as train cars) making the ride even more discombobulating than usual. However, the giant Christmas tree and Santa photo-op added to the walk-through are quite charming and well worth a look.

Tip: The exit is through the Arctic Shop and a prominent sign says “No Re-Entry.” However, late in the day, it appears to be easy to sneak back in through the back door if you’d like another peek at this fabulous habitat.

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