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Because it's there

What more reason would the Yeti Man need to climb aboard time after time after time? His is not the only soul to be bewitched by a ride at Disney World.

By JOHN BARRY, Deputy Floridian Editor
Published August 24, 2006

photo
[Times photo: Brian Cassella]
McCown, sporting his Yeti garb and tattoo, waits to board the Disney ride. The outfit helped get McCown noticed by Disney staffers, who nicknamed him the Yeti Man after repeatedly seeing him in line.
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THE FLORIDA HIMALAYAS -- O mighty is man's lust for Mount Everest that a team of climbers recently pronounced a frozen companion dead and left him behind in their quest for the summit. A few days later, he inconveniently turned up alive.

On dozens of visits since April, James McCown has left his wife and two children behind at Disney World to rearrange his vital organs aboard the Himalayan roller coaster ride, Expedition Everest.

They escort Dad to the roller coaster. He puts on his toboggan hat, his sunglasses to prevent snow blindness, his furry blue Yeti Man hands. He says "namaste" to the girl at the turnstile. (It means "hi" in Nepalese.) The family takes a couple of turns with him, then goes off to other attractions.

James rides on. His personal best is 63 times in a day. Up and down the hairpin turns he goes, defying Yeti, protector of the sacred mountain. "Yeti is mad!" James exclaims. "His fur is flying! His teeth are flashing! He is trying to rip your head off!" Heart leaps from left side to right side. Kidneys swap places with lungs. Stomach shakes hands with liver.

James staggers off in the late afternoon. "It takes my head two hours to settle down."

* * *

The Disney staff noticed a guy who always seemed to be in line at Expedition Everest. The blue wool toboggan hat and furry hands he wore made him stick out. Not to mention the Yeti tattoo on his biceps.

They began calling him the Yeti Man.

"There's another guy who rides it as much as me," James says. "But he don't have the hat and he don't have the tats."

James turned 45 Sunday; he is a retired bricklayer, still brawny; he now helps his wife, Simone, with her insurance business. They have two sons, James III, 12, and Alex, 11, and live in St. Petersburg in a house he covered in brick.

Simone turned him on to Disney, and it changed his life.

"I was a beach bum," he says. Thirteen years ago he spotted her in a club and asked her to dance. Talk about heart leaping left side to right side. When the dance ended James told Simone, "You're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. You're going to have my son." Simone answered, "I know I am."

He had no particular interest in Disney World, but after three weeks together, Simone asked him to take her. They rode Space Mountain together. That was all right. They made more weekend trips.

Over the years it grew on him. He didn't try to analyze it. He just went with it. He got a Beauty and the Beast tattoo. A Mickey Mouse wedding band. An annual Disney World pass.

Then Expedition Everest opened in April. He filled the house with Disney things. He raided the Animal Kingdom gift shops. Zebra masks. Kenyan carvings. African wind chimes. "Honest to God," Simone says, "I didn't think he'd go crazy."

* * *

The Yeti Man isn't the only one to go crazy. Each Disney ride seems to have an obsessed passenger or two.

Michelle and Rob Zerr claim Pirates of the Caribbean as their turf. They met in 2003 at a pirate festival in Key West. He was dressed as a buccaneer, she as a wench. Soon after, he moved from Seattle to Altamonte Springs, and they wedded at the Disney ride.

Michelle, 32, and Rob, 48, have become "pirate re-enactors." They perform at parties or other events where pirates are required. They have a closetful of costumes. Their home has a "pirate feel," including artifacts from Tom's Sawyer's Island and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. They have two swords from the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie.

But they limit their rides, Michelle says. "If we rode too much, or kept count, it would make it where I didn't want to ride anymore."

Over at the Haunted Mansion, Gary Estrada stopped keeping count after his 999th ride in 2005. That was one ride for each of the 999 "Happy Haunts" inside the Haunted Mansion.

His fascination goes back to his New Orleans childhood. It was the '50s. He watched Wonderful World of Disney on Sunday nights. One night, Walt Disney talked about a future attraction he would call Haunted Mansion. Estrada didn't get to see it until he was 26.

When he did, "I stood there for 10 minutes just looking," he says. "It was overwhelming."

He got a job at Disney World 18 years ago. He's in charge of the Pooh Bear Playground. He's 54 and single. He has tattooed Haunted Mansion on his biceps. He has a Haunted Mansion bed in his home in Montverde. He has candelabras, a knight in armor, red velvet curtains, a tombstone.

Gary may ride Haunted Mansion till the day he dies. As the 999 Happy Haunts like to say, "there's always room for a thousand."

* * *

The Yeti Man had hoped to take his 500th Expedition Everest on Sunday on his birthday. He got there a couple of days early to get within a ride or two of his goal. He got close. Until the "mishap."

James doesn't want to elaborate, but an amenity in his hotel room, crucial to the well-being of himself and his loved ones, malfunctioned on Saturday. It required immediate attention and a piece of special equipment, sometimes known as a "plumber's helper." One was not soon forthcoming.

James got to the park late, lines were long, and he was only able to complete rides 472, 473 and 474.

Nevertheless, on Sunday, he was enthusiastically escorted to the front of the line by Disney official Michael P. Sullivan, who pointed out along the way the ride's amazing attention to detail. Those globs on the wall? Replicated yak dung.

James' special birthday expedition turned out to be No. 475.

He rode. He flexed his muscles and howled for joy. His heart leaped left to right once more.

The Yeti Man shall return! Again! And again and again!

John Barry can be reached at 727-892-2258 or jbarry@sptimes.com.

[Last modified August 23, 2006, 14:34:28]


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