Florida on a Tankful: Go behind the scenes and meet penguins at SeaWorld

By Scott Fais, Feature Reporter
Last Updated: Thursday, April 27, 2017, 2:58 PM EDT

While most folks enter SeaWorld's "Empire of the Penguin" from the front of the penguin habitat, the back door offers a behind-the-scenes tour.

"Welcome to Antarctica,"  Senior Aviculturist Mike Schaber said as a small group of park guests entered an area traditionally off limits. "We have a foot bath."

Anyone coming in the back door must first step on a special mat filled with a liquid disinfectant, as SeaWorld allows only a handful of visitors to enter the husbandry area where nothing is off limits.

"They can take pictures of anything they see back here," Schaber said of the care area that includes offices, educational displays, food prep, incubators, a nursery and art made by fans of the former wetsuit-wearing penguin known as "Wonder Twin."

"We do a lot of work back here," Schaber said. "Incubation, hand-rearing, a lot of record keeping. Things like that."

The behind-the-scenes tours start with education about the more than a dozen breeds of penguins found worldwide. It continues with what they eat, how they reproduce and how SeaWorld caretakers identify the penguins.

In the spring, those on the tour may be in for a surprise.

"He's not naked anymore. He's getting a little fuzz," Schaber said of a weeks-old king penguin he named Flash.

Flash's mother laid her egg late in the breading season. Schaber shared that since female king penguins are known to steal other parent's chicks, it was best that Flash be cared for by hand until he is big enough to return to the main exhibit space.

Until then, Schaber will feed Flash a special diet four times a day.

"It's a ground-up penguin milkshake," he said of the smoothie-looking liquid lunch made especially for Flash in a Bullet-like mixer.

Next, visitors pass through a freezer door. Behind it awaits not a walk-in cooler, but instead the big moment.

It's here where visitors can meet a few of the more than 250 penguins in residence up close.

"We use some birds we know are friendly and enjoy interactions," Schaber said. "They get up close, touch them and get their own pictures."

Visitors are allowed to interact with the birds at an arms' reach. As soon as the door into the frozen area opens, many penguins will approach a gate, seeking contact with visitors and curious of their bare legs.

"A lot of guests come in in their sandals and shorts," Schaber said of the guests who kneel to get down to the penguins' level.

Be ready, though. It's a balmy 32 degrees inside. Most visitors will stay inside for 10 to 15 minutes.

"It's really rewarding to get people back here," Schaber said.

Know Before You Go
SeaWorld Orlando traditionally offers three behind-the-scenes tours a day.  Participation is capped to a handful of guests per tour.  SeaWorld admission is required.  Learn more here.

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