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A single themed ride is no longer enough to drive a family to Orlando so parks are rolling out entire lands that generate buzz and ultimately increase visitors at all friendly-family attractions in the region.

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 new 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 habit, along with a 325-seat restaurant meant to resemble a multinational mess hall and a penguin-themed gift shop peddling Puck plush toys and other souvenirs.

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 new 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 also 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. The drink selection in Antarctica’s Expedition Cafe restaurant will include South Pole Chill, a vanilla-flavored soda made by SeaWorld sponsor Coca-Cola Co. exclusively for sale in the new attractions area.

SeaWorld would not discuss its projections for Antarctica. But Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services in Cincinnati, said expectations are high across the industry.

“I think the buzz in the industry is that this will be to SeaWorld what Harry was to Universal and what Fantasyland was to Disney,” he said.

Antarctica could perform particularly well with those travelers willing to venture off Disney World property — a market that has been expanded by Wizarding World. The pull will become even stronger next year when Universal opens its second Potter land.

“I think SeaWorld has the opportunity to grab a good number of those people that have already left Disney property or decided beforehand not to stay on Disney property, and show what they can do,” Boyd said. “If they knock it out of the park, I think the center of the Orlando market continues to shift toward International Drive.”

A spokesman for Disney World said all Orlando tourism operators benefit when new attractions open and give travelers more reasons to visit Central Florida. Still, Disney is taking more steps to insulate itself against the competition.

The company this year will introduce the major elements of its $1 billion “MyMagic+” initiative, which aims to get travelers to lock in their vacation plans in advance by allowing them to book times for popular rides and shows long before they get to Orlando.

Disney executives say keeping travelers within their parks and hotels — and thus away from Potter and Puck — is one of the driving strategies behind MyMagic+.

“We have known for a really long time that getting our visitors to Walt Disney World to make decisions about where they spend their time before they leave home is a powerful driver of visits per guest,” Disney Co. Chief Financial Officer Jay Rasulo told analysts earlier this month.

“When they get into the Orlando market and their time isn’t yet planned,” he continued, “they can be subject to everything you see down there, which is a lot of in-city marketing for all the many products that people have put there to basically bleed off the feed that we fundamentally motivate.”

(c)2013 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.


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Tags: florida, orlando, seaworld, theme parks

Photo credit: An ocean killer whale show at Shamu Stadium in Sea World Orlando. Rich Jacques / SeaWorld Entertainment

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