Ride scales Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom

April 02, 2006|By KYLE WAGNER | KYLE WAGNER,THE DENVER POST

You can't say Disney doesn't listen.

Guests have been complaining for years that Orlando's Animal Kingdom needed more rides, that the parks needed more roller coasters, and that Walt Disney's magic needs to be based more on the authentic vision that the man himself once embodied.

The answer: Expedition Everest: Mission Himalayas.

This new thrill ride, the first in this park since Primeval Whirl opened in 2002, is a 200-foot peak that takes riders for nearly a mile aboard a runaway train through the Himalayas, the habitat of the yeti, a mythical creature protecting the sacred mountains.

The ride has been two years in the making, starting when Joe Rohde, creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering, took a team to a 1,000-year-old monastery in Mustang, in the Nepalese Himalayas, to study the plants, architecture and culture for ideas. They spoke with monks about the spirit of the yeti, about the forests and the shrines, and they brought back trees and other plants that would thrive in the Florida climate, as well as authentic climbing gear, prayer flags and other items evocative of the area.

"The important thing was to create this sense of this place without making fun of it, without it's being a caricature of the real thing," said Mike Lentz, a creative engineer with Disney Imagineering, who walked us through the ride in December.

Part of the success of Expedition Everest is that the stuff will be fun to look at while waiting in the inevitable long lines. The setup of the story, that guests are trekking to the top of Everest (which sports a tribute to Sir Edmund Hillary in a replica of the Hillary step on its man-made face), plays out in the tea warehouse and museum as guests wind through the line.

Photos of Sherpas, replicas of totems, stone carvings and shrines complete with orange offerings and massive prayer flag canopies further the sense of place. They also offer a distraction for antsy folks itching to get their thrills on a ride that has been compared with Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in terms of style, but edgier.

Not only does Expedition Everest involve the big drop at the end, but it also goes backward and through dark tunnels, and the Audio-Animatronics yeti, considered to be the most sophisticated created by Disney, chases riders out toward track that appears to be cut off, giving the sensation that everyone will hurtle off into space.

Walt would be so proud.

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