Orlando Sentinal: SeaWorld Orlando has quietly launched a "major redevelopment" that will add several new attractions to the marine park in 2012 and 2013.
The plans, according to government filings and interviews with people familiar with various elements, include transforming a 24-year-old penguin exhibit into a new, possibly Antarctica-themed ride; adding a sea-turtle movie attraction to an existing manatee display; and building a rainforest-themed trail in Discovery Cove, SeaWorld's limited-admission boutique park, that would include a freshwater pool and habitats for primates and otters.
SeaWorld would not discuss details of its plans this week, though it confirmed that it has multiple new attractions in the works.
"We do have plans for incredible new attractions at SeaWorld Orlando, and we're committed to finding amazing new ways to immerse our guests and fans in the mysteries of the sea," SeaWorld spokesman Nick Gollattscheck said. "It's too early to talk about the plans and details right now, but you can expect us to share the news in the near future."
In a sign of how ambitious its plans are, a delegation of top SeaWorld Orlando executives met two weeks ago with more than a half-dozen senior Orange County planning and growth-management officials to alert them to the coming work. The SeaWorld contingent included SeaWorld Orlando President Terry Prather; park vice presidents in charge of finance, design and engineering, and lobbying; and a corporate engineering and creative-development executive.
The SeaWorld executives, according to those at the meeting, sought assurances that their plans would advance rapidly through the county's permitting process.
"They're going to be doing a major redevelopment. They're looking at spending a significant amount of money," said John Smogor, Orange County's planning administrator, though he said the SeaWorld executives did not discuss specific project details.
The Orlando spending surge is an effort by Orlando-based SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment — and its owner, private-equity giant the Blackstone Group — to revive the biggest and most important of their 10 U.S. theme parks. SeaWorld Orlando alone is responsible for roughly one-third of SeaWorld Parks' total earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, according to a recent report by the ratings firm Standard & Poor's.
But SeaWorld Orlando has also struggled during the past 18 months, losing visitors to Universal Orlando and its year-old Wizarding World of Harry Potter themed area. More challenges are looming, with Merlin Entertainments Group preparing to open a nearby Legoland Florida theme park later this month and Walt Disney World in the midst of expanding two of its four parks — including Disney's Animal Kingdom, which, like SeaWorld, is themed around wildlife and conservation.
"SeaWorld desperately needs to keep up with the competition inOrlando, and both Universal and Disney are just throwing money at stuff right now," said Robert Niles, publisher of ThemeParkInsider.com. "If SeaWorld doesn't do anything, it's going to get left behind."
Although SeaWorld won't reveal its plans yet, some details have trickled out.
One of the biggest projects, expected to be completed in 2013, involves Penguin Encounter, a walk-through exhibit that opened in 1987 and displays several different species of penguins, as well as puffins and murres.
SeaWorld employees have been told the exhibit will close in December for an 18-month refurbishment, and one county official said he expects SeaWorld to demolish the building entirely. SeaWorld is currently renovating a back-area avian-research building to make room for the penguins that will be displaced by the construction.
What exactly will replace the penguin exhibit is less clear. There are persistent rumors, first reported by the industry news site ScreamScape.com, that SeaWorld plans to build an indoor "dark ride" in its place. Since August, SeaWorld Orlando has also trademarked a trio of names that could be associated with the project: "Antarctica" and "Empire of the Penguins," both for use as themed areas in an amusement park, and "SnowWorld," for use as an amusement-park attraction.
Separately, SeaWorld is also planning to redevelop its Manatee Rescue attraction, a project expected to debut in 2012. According to a person familiar with details, the plans include renovating a circular theater and using it for an upgraded, sea-turtle movie that will likely be tied in with a theatrical documentary that was released this past summer through SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment's new SeaWorld Pictures film unit.
Documents filed with the South Florida Water Management District confirm that SeaWorld plans to convert the manatee exhibit into a "combination manatee/sea turtle exhibit." SeaWorld last month also trademarked the name "Turtlesphere 360" for use in a theme-park attraction.
Discovery Cove, the high-end boutique park next door to SeaWorld, is also a part of the expansion efforts. Documents filed with the water district and Orange County show that SeaWorld intends to convert a now-closed saltwater reef into a freshwater environment referred to both as the "Flooded Rainforest Trail" and as "Flooded Forest River Trails."
According to the documents, its features will include a "primate island" and an otter-viewing area.