Disney reaches the summit

ORLANDO, Fla. – To the people of Nepal, the legend of the yeti is so real, so powerful, that stories about it eclipse any of those told about Bigfoot. Or the Loch Ness Monster. Or the Bermuda Triangle.

The yeti, the “protector of the mountains” in the Himalayas, is as revered as it is feared.

That fable now has been retold – through the magic of Disney – in Expedition Everest at the Animal Kingdom theme park.

Expedition Everest, Walt Disney World’s newest thrill ride, and without question already one of its best, takes passengers on a high-speed train ride, part of the fictional Anadapur Rail Service, through the Himalayas, seemingly to the top of the world.

Then, without warning, the train stops near the top of the mountain because the tracks have been torn apart – presumably by the yeti’s massive hands.

Passengers then travel backward before turning, winding and spinning their way back to base camp.

“This, truly, is a stunning achievement,” Disney president Bob Iger said at the grand opening. “Disney is in the business of storytelling and this is a shining example of that.”

The fun of Expedition Everest, as with almost all Disney attractions, is the story behind the ride. In this case, it’s the story of the yeti, a cross between the Abominable Snowman and Bigfoot.

For thousands of years, diverse cultures along the Himalayas have believed in the yeti. Some believe it’s real; others feel its spirit. This spirit is alive today in the Himalayas – and recreated in Expedition Everest.

“We have researched cultural and spiritual legends through local people who have reported sightings of the yeti, and governments who preserve pristine lands in the name of the creature,” Disney creative director of Walt Disney Imagineering’s Joe Rohde said. “Our Imagineers journeyed to Nepal a number of times, immersing ourselves in the legends, lore and heart of the place. Our goal was to create an authentically detailed environment that reflects the culture and traditions of these Himalayan countries.”

The ride itself is only part of the journey as passengers make their way through the village of Serka Zong. There is a canopy of prayer flags, an ornamental monastery, carved totems and stone carvings of the yeti along the route to the ticket office.

Travelers then pass through the general store for needed supplies for the journey.

Passengers board a train and roll through thick bamboo forests and fern groves. As the train ascends a steep hill, there are warning signs of dangers ahead. The train continues across a teetering bridge into the mountains and then heads toward the snowcapped peak. That’s when the ride really begins. The runaway train races backward through the darkened mountain caverns and icy canyons. The train then accelerates forward through fog and then plunges down an 80-foot drop to escape the wrath – and the grasp – of the towering yeti.

While the ride reaches speeds of 50 mph, the roller coaster is fairly mild. This is not a modern, skin-peeling roller coaster, nor is it intended to be.

The mile-long roller-coaster ride, the only one of its kind, brings Animal Kingdom in line with the rest of the Walt Disney World theme parks. Each has its own magic and charm, and all have thrill rides as calling cards. Expedition Everest immediately earned such a reputation.