Southern Travel

Sunday, February 26, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- "Respect tradition -- beware," warn yellowed posters and weathered totem poles surrounding a 200-foot peak.

Inside lives the biggest, most fierce creature Walt Disney ever built -- and a mile-long runaway train ride through the Himalayas that brings visitors face-to-face with a mythological legend. In Nepalese lore, the mysterious yeti is thought to protect the pristine east Asian mountains and forests.

At Walt Disney World's new Expedition Everest attraction, it's a howling animatronic beast with more potential thrust power than a 747 airplane -- and the center of the theme park giant's first big-ticket attraction here in two-and-a-half years.

Everest, set to open April 7 in Disney's Animal Kingdom, features a train navigating an 80-foot drop, rumbling over bridges and through valleys backward and forward to escape the monster, which has twisted and broken the tracks.

With no upside-down turns, Everest isn't as white-knuckling as some new coasters. But it could help Disney draw visitors to the Animal Kingdom, which has long lagged in popularity behind sister parks Epcot, the Magic Kingdom and Disney-MGM Studios.

To drum up more publicity for the ride, Disney put on a show Wednesday over New York City's Times Square featuring acrobats and a rock climber performing gravity-defying leaps on ropes from a 157-foot billboard.

The Everest attraction, billed as a family thrill ride with a 44-inch height limit, could scarcely be more different than Disney's last big-ticket item, the rocket-simulating Mission: Space. Equipped with vomit bags, the ride uses a centrifuge and recreates two times the force of gravity while taking riders on a simulated trip to Mars.

Still, it was adventurous enough for 5-year-old Pauline Cordova, whose Monroe, N.J. family got a chance to check out Everest early as Disney continues testing before the grand opening. Pauline's brothers Chris, 11, and Mike, 8, had already ridden it three times, but once was enough for her.

"I thought it was scary," Pauline said, clutching her mother's hand.

Several research trips from western China to Nepal informed Disney's design of the 6.2-acre attraction, including their rendition of a Himalayan village called "Serka Zong" that leads visitors up to the ride.

"The ride experience changes from this sort of scenic tour to this sort of fast-paced drop backwards," said Mike Lentz, vice president of new business initiatives for Walt Disney imagineering.

That includes turns through a light mist meant to simulate weather in the low-lying mountains and scream-inducing rushes through the darkness inside the fake snow-topped mountain that houses the attraction.

The village includes a tourism booking office, Tashi's General Store and Bar, and an old warehouse refashioned as a yeti museum -- all built with taut attention to the architecture and feel of a real east Asian mountain town.

"Every detail is intended to be part of a complete story. It has importance, and we spend a lot of time on these details," Lentz said. "As a guest you stand in that place and you feel like you're in some place really, really different."

At least 8,000 props purchased from Nepal adorn the village, along with prayer flags and ancient-looking carvings of goats and yak. Disney is nurturing 900 bamboo plants, 10 species of trees and 110 species of shrub to recreate the local vegetation around the attraction.

"You have to imagine this detail exists in a certain way to be passed over by people," said Joe Rohde, executive designer and vice president with Walt Disney Imagineering. "We don't want them to look at a building, and say, 'Oh that's a building,' or look at a rock and say, 'Oh that's a rock.' You go right past it and just accept what it is."

It took jets, helicopters and donkeys to deliver Disney's creative team past slippery, narrow roads and to a 1,000-year-old monastery to study the Himalayan culture. The team stayed there three days and interviewed the Rinpoche, known as "the living Buddha," about local beliefs in the yeti.

"Our story was really about the culture and the people, the areas where there is human habitation," said Rohde, a member of the expeditions.

Disney based its design for the monstrous yeti on golden monkeys in the Qinling mountains -- cold-weather primates with blue faces and fiery orange fur.

Park researchers were accompanied by Conservation International and film crews from Discovery Networks, whose Travel Channel will premiere a chronicle of the trip called "Expedition Everest: Journey to Sacred Lands" the week of April 9.

For Disney's creative team, Everest is an experience -- not just a rollicking, mile-long roller coaster ride.

Their painstaking attention to detail and authenticity may have been lost on riders like Pauline, and potentially hundreds of thousands of visitors after her. But the real importance is in recreating a realistic environment that transports visitors to another world -- whether they realize it or not, Rohde said.

"We need enough detail to sustain your attention for 50 years," he said. "We build these things to last multiple generations so people can come back their whole life and enjoy it."

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