Like so many of my articles, I must start this one in Anaheim, California. You see, the yeti at Expedition Everest isn’t the first such creature to inhabit a Disney mountain. In 1959, Disneyland saw a major expansion with the opening of the Disneyland/Alwig Monorail, the Submarine Voyage, and the Matterhorn Bobsleds. This was a big year for Walt and he was proud of how his fledgling park was shaping up.
But there is an interesting side note to one of these new attractions that many are too young to remember. In the early years, the interior of the Matterhorn was one large cavernous opening where girders, chicken-wire, and wooden beams were easily seen during the ascent and ride. It would be an understatement to say that these construction materials broke the illusion of actually bobsledding down a real mountain.
An elaborate interior was always planned from the very beginning, but cash was short and it was decided to hold off and complete the inside in a year or so. Then the New York World’s Fair came along and consumed most of the company’s time and money. Following soon after that, the acquisition of land for Walt Disney World began. Not to mention, the Matterhorn was one of Disneyland’s most popular attractions and management didn’t like the idea of closing it for an extended period. So for many years, riders of this “E” ticket attraction had the illusion of a real mountain shattered the moment their bobsled ventured inside the structure.
In the mid ’70s, it was finally decided that this eyesore needed to be corrected and the Imagineers dusted off the original plans and added some enhancements. After an extensive rehab, the Matterhorn reopened in 1978. Gone were the girders and chicken-wire to be replaced with a network of ice caves – and the abominable snowman.
Affectionately called Harold by some, I wouldn’t actually call the Matterhorn’s Abominable Snowman scary, but his presence and the ice caves added a much needed lift to this Disneyland favorite.
When the Animal Kingdom was being designed and promoted, it was billed as having real, prehistoric, and mythological animals. As we know, the real animals live throughout the park and the prehistoric ones can be found in Dinoland U.S.A. But for a number of years, there were no mythological creatures to be found in this park.
A never built land, to be called Beastly Kingdom, was to be home to these mythological creatures. The premier attraction for Beastly Kingdom was to be a dragon-themed coaster. But like the interior of the Matterhorn, budget constraints got in the way and it was decided to make Beastly Kingdom a Phase Two project and open it at a later date. However, without Beastly Kingdom, the Animal Kingdom would feel incomplete so the Imagineers threw together The Festival of the Lion King Show using old floats from Disneyland and created Camp Minnie/Mickey as an inexpensive place holder until finances facilitated replacing it with Beastly Kingdom.
Have you ever noticed the unusual rock formation off to the right while crossing the bridge into Camp Minnie/Mickey? If you look closely you’ll discover it is in the shape of a dragon’s head. That’s because this area was to be Beastly Kingdom.
In the meantime, Islands of Adventure opened at nearby Universal Studios with a Lost Continent area that featured twin coasters called Dueling Dragons. Since Disney likes to be a leader, not a follower, their planned dragon-themed coaster lost some of its appeal. In addition, the “temporary” Festival of the Lion King show had become extremely popular, making it difficult to justify closing Camp Minnie/Mickey to make room for Beastly Kingdom. Yet the park still needed to feature mythological creatures as originally advertised and it also desperately needed to add another “E” ticket attraction for this ride-deficient park.
Remembering the Matterhorn, the Imagineers started to think how the abominable snowman had breathed new life into this already popular attraction. Continuing with this train of thought they wondered if a similar mountain and creature in the Animal Kingdom might be just what the park needed. Of course, the European continent is not represented at the Animal Kingdom so duplicating the Matterhorn was not an option. Instead, the Imagineers decided to introduce the abominable snowman’s cousin, the yeti who is fabled to live in the Himalayan Mountains of Asia, a land that already existed in the park. Yeti is a Sherpa word meaning “magical creature.”
When people think of the Himalayan Mountains, they automatically think of Mount Everest, the tallest peak in the world. But unfortunately, this mountain lacks a distinctive shape like the Matterhorn. In fact, it’s rather unremarkable in appearance. So lead Imagineer Joe Rohde decided to create a “range” of mountains and place Everest in the background. By doing this, Everest didn’t need to be the “tallest” mountain in the range since it was “far off” in the distance. This also allowed the Imagineers to come up with a more interesting peak to build their story around – Forbidden Mountain.
Although most people call this attraction Expedition Everest, its full name is Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain. This can be seen on the banner and partially hidden poster near the entrance of the attraction.
In an effort to make Disney’s Himalayan range as authentic as possible, the Imagineers made a number of trips to Nepal, Tibet, and China to study the topography, architecture, and myths of these areas. What they brought back with them was knowledge of a rich culture and heritage that they hoped to recreate in the Animal Kingdom.
When the Animal Kingdom was in its planning stages, Michael Eisner insisted that the park portray an environmental message — a message that promotes harmony between man, the planet, and the animals that coexist with us. While researching the yeti, the Imagineers learned that this creature was far more than a ferocious beast. It was the protector of the mountains and its surroundings.
Much thought went into the design of the yeti. The Imagineers wanted to create a realistic animal that might actually live in the high altitude and cold environment of the Himalayans, not a sci-fi monster. A number of primates, including the golden monkey and orangutan, were studied and various aspects of each were used, along with other practical adaptations, to create what we see today. When these concepts were transitioned from paper to machinery, the largest, most dynamic, and fastest AudioAnimatronics figure ever created was designed and built. So intense is the yeti’s movement that he had to be placed on a separate foundation that did not touch the track or mountain’s structure.
Designing the mountain range was another arduous task. The Imagineers created twenty-four models before they settled on a final design. Then, using laser technology, their six-foot model was scanned into a computer. Once digitalized, the Imagineers could fine tune the ride sequence and create detailed drawings that would be needed to construct the attraction. What we see is an accurate depiction of the northwest face of Mount Everest
I mentioned earlier that the yeti stands on his own foundation. In addition to this, the track and mountains also stand on their own, separate foundations and do not touch one another. The designers endeavored to put six inches of space between the track and the mountain. This was necessary to insure that the vibration of the trains rumbling through the mountain and the swaying of the track did not shake, crack, and damage the mountain’s structure. Unfortunately, the yeti’s intense movement proved to be too much for its foundation and it cracked sometime ago. Because of this, the yeti has been switched from Mode “A” operation (movement) to Mode “B” operation (stationary with strobe lights and fans). It’s my understanding that the damage is great enough that repairs will need to wait until the attraction is closed for rehab.
The mountain range sits on six acres of land and was crafted using more than 3,000 prefabricated “chips” created from 25,000 individual computer -molded pieces of steel. The mountains contain 1,800 tons of steel. That is about six times the amount of steel used in a traditional office building of this size. The mountains’ surface contains 18.7 million pounds of concrete and 2,000 gallons of paint. The track length is approximately one mile and reaches a top speed of 50 miles per hour at the bottom of the 80 foot drop.
At the base of Disney’s Himalayan Mountains is the village of Serka Zong. Serka Zong means “fortress of the chasm.” This community was based on the styles of several locales but mostly on the Kali Gandaki region of the Annapurna Conservancy in Nepal. Building techniques (or the appearance of which) remained true to the area by using stone and hard packed earth as building blocks.
Artists used hammers, chainsaws and blowtorches to “age” wood and buildings in the village to give the appearance of being longstanding parts of the landscape. More than 2,000 handcrafted items from Asia were used in the queue and surrounding area.
Careful attention was also given to the surrounding plant life. More than 900 bamboo plants, 10 species of trees, and 114 species of shrubs were planted around the mountain to simulate the lowlands surrounding the Himalayas.
Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain officially opened April 7, 2006. Before this date, everyone raced to be first in line for Kilimanjaro Safaris. But now the morning crowd splits at the tree of life, half heading off to Africa while the others scramble to get their first adrenaline rush of the day on this great coaster.
That’s it for Part One. Check back tomorrow when we will walk the queue and then take a ride on Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain.