Penguins go 4-D

Charlie Bourne of Mount Pleasant watches a 15-minute version of 'Happy Feet' in 4-D as bubbles are blown in the theater Friday at the S.C. Aquarium.

The S.C. Aquarium now offers 15 minutes of complete escapism for an extra $5.

The attraction today officially opens the state's first four-dimensional "immersion" theater.

While three-dimensional movies mean goofy glasses and almost touchable scenes, this setup delivers all that plus letting audiences feel waves splashing and wind whipping across their faces.

The aquarium began showing "Happy Feet 4-D Experience" about a week ago in the standalone theater to the right of the aquarium ramp. The film condenses a nearly two-hour movie into 15 minutes the viewer can feel.

Children gasped and squealed as soon as the trailer started Friday afternoon, pulling them down a roller coaster and onto an airplane wing before mice ran over their feet and a sailor spit on them. As "Happy Feet" played, families felt eggshell cracking when the main character, Mumble the penguin, hatched.

Wearing giant red glasses, they smelled fish coming up in a net and felt the rush of snow over the glacier and bubbles as the penguins dove underwater.

Aquarium director of brand communications Kevin Kampwerth said "Happy Feet" seemed the right fit because it coincides with the aquarium's extended "Penguin Planet" exhibit featuring four playful, warm-weather birds and because the movie sends a conservation message.

"Everyone thinks of it as a great little cartoon, but it's also got a great message about protecting the ocean," Kampwerth said.

The aquarium plans to change its main feature every year and also to show seasonal movies such as "The Polar Express," according to Kampwerth. It also can swap out movies, such as the BBC's "Planet Earth" series, for school groups.

The aquarium budgeted $40,000 in capital investment funds for the theater, which previously operated at the Vancouver Olympics. Toronto-based SimEx- Iwerks Entertainment owns the installation which, thanks to a partnership with the aquarium, is now a permanent feature on the Charleston waterfront.

It holds 52 people with each red chair equipped with motion seating. It mirrors setups at Universal Studios and at aquariums in New York and Baltimore.

Decked out with wooden walkways and clear and metal railings to match the aquarium next door, the theater runs penguin trivia on flat screens from a porch between shows every half-hour. Admission costs an extra $5 on top of regular aquarium prices for adults, or $6.95 for the movie alone.

Visiting from Fort Mill, the Bost family couldn't agree on the best part of their experience.

Nine-year-old Nora liked the snow, while 7-year-old Quinn enjoyed the bubbles. Their mother, Kim, said she liked both and also the unexpected movement -- for the most part.

"But that poking thing," she said. "That was a little bit too much surprise."

Reach Allyson Bird at 937-5594 or abird@postandcourier.com.