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The desert is not a place you would expect to find snow, let alone penguins you can hug and play with. But Dubai has never adhered to convention (or common sense, some would argue).

Ski Dubai, a snow park and ski complex in the Mall of the Emirates, recently became home to 20 flip-flopping penguins who emigrated from Sea World in Texas.  Ten large King penguins and 10 smaller Gentoo penguins now reside permanently in a section of the ski park that has been converted into a penguin’s idea of a deluxe apartment with plenty of fish and  a large indoor pool.

Born and brought up in distinctly non-Antarctic Texan captivity, these iconic birds love being around people, much like dogs. “Peng-Friend” encounters take place in an ice cave where the penguins feel at home, and once you are suited in warm ski gear, you are free to play with a selection under the close supervision of their trainers, who were also relocated from the United States.

Penguins have big personalities and are surprisingly easy to interact with. You might meet moody teenager McFatty, a two year old King penguin who is a little portly around the middle, or little Pebbles, a Gentoo female who loves to try to climb things. The black-and-white waddlers love to play with bubbles, toys on strings and won’t turn down the odd hug or two. If you thought you liked penguins before, you’ll want to adopt them all after coming here.

“Peng-Friend” encounters can be booked at the ski park or online, and as with everything in Dubai, there are different levels depending on the exclusivity. The general “Peng-Friend” encounter offers two penguins with 10 other people for 40 minutes and costs 175 dirhams per person . The executive version sees 14 penguins split between only four people for maximum petting potential. The session lasts 90 minutes and the 500 dirham fee includes a souvenir and hot chocolate. (Children between three and 12 years old must be accompanied by an adult.)

The ski park also organises a “March of the Penguins” every day, which anyone in the mall can watch for free.

Georgina Wilson-Powell is the Dubai Localite for BBC Travel. She also writes georginawp.wordpress.com.

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