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A new peak for Disney

The ambitious Expedition Everest, a roller coaster with its own Himalayan village, represents a number of firsts for the resort's creative team.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS
Published December 11, 2005


LAKE BUENA VISTA - It's close to the holidays, but Daniel Jue figures he'll be getting his big presents late. He can wait: He's been earning them for more than 31/2 years.

That's how long Jue has been working to "make the construction meet the blueprints" for Walt Disney World Resort's next major attraction, Expedition Everest. This specialized roller coaster, which departs from its own mountain village, is likely to begin unannounced rehearsals within a couple of months, and that's when Jue expects his "gifts."

"I want to hear their laughter and their screams - that will be so satisfying," said Jue, the principal production designer, while giving a tour recently of the site in Animal Kingdom.

The shrieks ought to be fairly constant when the ride opens April 7:

- The coaster roars up to 50 miles per hour, mainly inside a nearly 200-foot-high mountain - the tallest designed in Disney's 50 years of park operations.

- The Everest ride is the first in any Disney park in which a roller coaster travels backward.

- The biggest surprise comes near the end of the ride: The passengers will suddenly confront the largest-ever Audio Animatronic robot, the Abominable Snowman.

It may be lost on most riders, but this yeti is as, well, lifelike as Disney's creative team could make it.

"We talked to specialty biologists and scientists to design our own yeti, to make him believable," explained Jue, standing near a huge puppet of a yeti that would be used in the attraction's village rituals.

"We asked them if there is a yeti, what would the bone structure be like, the head shape, where is the skull attached to the neck? Would a yeti walk on two legs or four, would it be a meat eater or a vegetarian? How would its fur look?"

For the record, Disney's yeti is covered in a combination of real animal fur and synthetic fibers.

Moving the mountain

This pursuit of detail is typical of the remarkable effort expended the past five years in planning, refining, then constructing Expedition Everest.

For a project this size, Jue said, "You go through months and months of feasibility studies. . . . We have architects, engineers, landscape architects, production designers, all sitting at the table to address early on what might arise later.

"We worked on paper and in clay, probably 15 to 20 different clay models" of what this mock village and the looming mountains should look like when created on the Central Florida plain. To help convince riders that this 200-foot-tall mountain is 100 times that high, Disney specialists even planted hundreds of trees of varying heights and different leaf sizes.

"The sight line is a key issue," Jue said. "We want the guests to see what they are coming toward (the Himalayan foothills), we want the rest of the park guests to see the mountain, so we moved its location probably five times" before starting its construction.

"Hundreds of people are involved from Imagineering (the creative engineers who make the concepts practical), deciding how to paint a mural, how to carve the (fake) rock to make it look real. We actually sent our rock carvers to the Wasatch Range (in northern Utah and Idaho) because the rock formation there is similar to that of the Himalayas."

But other specialists did go to the Himalayas, a total of 15 trips to Nepal, Bhutan and China. There, they studied everything from culture to construction, from the shrubbery to the Sherpas.

Which is how it came to pass that three members of the real-life Nepal Mountaineering Association agreed to have their photographs and names posted on the walls of the mock office and gear store that riders pass through before boarding the coaster.

Those buildings, whose walls are decorated with mountaineering items and photos of other Nepalese, are part of the village of Serka Zong, "an amalgam of real flavors from southeast China to Nepal," Jue said.

Thus, the buildings resemble the mix of mud and water that the Nepalese and Bhutanese people call rammed earth. There are so few trees at that elevation that wood is too precious to be used as a building material; it is saved for burning in ceremonies. Instead, structures are made of blocks of the adobelike rammed earth.

Florida building codes prohibit that construction, so Serka Zong buildings are made with rebar and then plaster over lathe for the outward shape. The plaster facade has been carved and stained to look aged.

Similarly, the 2,500 pieces of carved wood Disney had made in Nepal have been sandblasted and then stained to look as if they had weathered more than 400 years in the village. The few metallic signs placed on outside walls have even been rusted to imitate aging.

Telling a story

The park guests at Everest theoretically are trekkers who want to ride a train through an abandoned tea plantation to the lower mountains. These trekkers first walk through the village, beneath slightly tattered prayer flags whose decorations are mainly mythical animals, lest copying actual flag designs offend anyone.

Before the trekkers enter the offices to reach the train cars, they are funneled past shrines in a pagoda courtyard with statues and several smaller representations of the yeti, "who is protecting the forbidden mountain, his domain," Jue said. "We have given the riders all these little visual clues" as to what they might encounter.

Again, the penchant for authenticity may be missed by most riders, who won't know that the attraction's prop designer spent 21/2 months in Nepal, buying 90 percent of the items displayed here. Sharp-eyed riders might notice in one shrine the Coke bottle that bears a label in Nepalese.

Expedition Everest "is about the intrinsic value of nature, of preserving it," Jue said. "The yeti is a symbol of that. . . . In the real world, several cultures have set aside land for the yeti's protection.

"If you went to Nepal, you would not see a village like this. We are not trying to duplicate a place but to think like they do. In Animal Kingdom, we try to acquire knowledge" to pass on to guests.

Still, it is hard not to see the irony of preserving nature and celebrating ancient cultures in the world's most popular theme park.

The back story for Expedition Everest is a multilayered drama: man vs. environment, modern inventions vs. ritual, the for-profit generation vs. religious belief.

Two entrepreneurs, Norbu and Bob, have decided to make a buck off an abandoned tea plantation. They ignore the villagers' warning that this is the land of the yeti - "the guardian of the realm of the snows," said Jue - and should be left alone.

Instead, Norbu and Bob use the old "donkey engines" that formerly hauled rail cars of tea leaves to carry 34 trekkers per trainload through a bamboo forest, past waterfalls, across an 80-foot-long bridge - which has minimal guard rails - and into the mountain's caves on the way to their base camp.

That's when the real thrills begin, as the train encounters torn-up tracks, races backward, plunges 80 feet outside the mountain - "That's our Kodak picture shot," Jue said gleefully, pointing toward those tracks - and finally comes into contact with the yeti.

As for all of the details and authenticity before the thrills begin on what is a three-minute ride, Imagineer Mike Lentz says: "Everything we do supports a story. We even imprinted pine straw and horses' hoof prints in the mock mud of the village, and have the guests pass under an arch into the village, so that when they walk through that, they suspend belief.

"If we're not telling a story on the ride, why do it?'

Robert N. Jenkins can be reached at 727 893-8496 or jenkins@sptimes.com

* * *

EXPEDITION EVEREST STATS

WHERE: Expedition Everest was built on vacant land next to the Tarzan Rocks theater; when you first enter Animal Kingdom, turn to the right. Because live music from Tarzan spills over to Everest, the Tarzan venue is likely to be enclosed.

HOW: Once the Imagineers settled on the final shape of the mountains - and Everest is actually the mountain behind the one the train enters - the approved clay model was carved into foam, details were added and the final model stood about 6 feet tall. Its image was scanned by laser and stored in a computer. Those digital files were used to size and shape about 25,000 pieces of steel for the mountain.

HOW MANY: About 18.7-million pounds of concrete and 5,000 tons of steel were used to create the attraction. Nearly 8,000 individual props have been placed in the village.

HOW TALL: Youngsters must be 44 inches tall to ride the train. That height is checked by having the child stand against a giant yeti footprint.

HOW GREEN: To landscape the area, 910 bamboo trees of four species were planted, along with 250 specimens of 10 other trees, and 88,141 shrubs - 114 species, if you're keeping score at home.

WHEN: Opens April 7.

[Last modified December 9, 2005, 08:38:03]


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