Fun Facts About Expedition Everest
For countless years, Disney Imagineers heard the criticisms. They listened as adrenaline junkies assailed Walt Disney World for its lack of thrill rides. The four Disney parks in Orlando clearly cater to families. The downside of this multi-demographic prioritization is that some rides aren’t great for the kids or the grandparents.
When park planners laid the groundwork for Disney’s Animal Kingdom, they had many grand ambitions for the final gate at Walt Disney World. Alas, many of those dreams were delayed by budgetary constraints. A few years after the park opened, then-CEO Michael Eisner decided that Animal Kingdom needed a bit more oomph. Imagineers started planning a ride in 2003 that would become the most exciting thrill ride at Animal Kingdom, maybe even all of Walt Disney World. Here are a few fun facts about Expedition: Everest, the tea train disaster ride through Yeti country.
Welcome to Serka Zong
When you jump onboard the roller coaster cart for Expedition: Everest, your focus isn’t on your seat. It’s on the impending journey through wrecked train tracks, that dazzling moment when you are thrust backward into the dark abyss. Your distraction is understandable. Even longtime Disney guests still get a special thrill as they anticipate this shocking journey into night.
Still, you should pay a bit more attention to your surroundings the next time you board Expedition Everest. Disney delivered unprecedented detail to the theming of this attraction, starting with the line queue and continuing through the boarding process. We’ll get to the line queue later but for now, let’s talk about tea time.
Yes, the backstory of Expedition Everest is that you’re a guest in the village of Serka Zong. Your destination is the Himalayan Escapes Travel Agency. Here, you will follow in the footsteps of formerly prosperous businesspeople.
You see, Serka Zong was once a hub of a tea export to and from the area. Entrepreneurs would transport tea via steam trains to the major business exchange city, Anandapur. It was a remarkably successful business enterprise…that suddenly went dark one day.
All aboard the Tea Train!
Legends abound that the steam trains unwittingly awakened an apparently-not-at-all-mythical beast. Yes, the Yeti had hibernated for years prior to the tea trains. Then, their annoying sounds woke him from his deep slumber. Enraged, the Yeti ignored all of the attempts by the locals to placate him and chased away his unwelcome guests.
The former Royal Anandapur Tea Company train tracks were abandoned in the fallout of this local disaster. Rather than let the area go unused, new businessmen named Bob and Norbu arrived on the scene. Their goal was to build a tourist destination in the area and possibly rebuild the tea business. They didn’t believe the Yeti myths, brushing aside the rumors as nonsense. The men founded Himalayan Escapes: Tours and Expeditions. You ride their repurposed steam trains during Expedition Everest.
Disney has modified the standard roller coaster cart to emphasize the steam train elements of the theming. You can see the steam rising from the ground as you approach your ride cart. No, that’s not steam coming from your vehicle, though. Instead, Disney has vents placed under the train tracks.
These vents spray a kind of steam upward. They don’t use water, however, as that would rust the mine carts. In fact, the entire design of the carts is quite clever, even by Disney standards. Disney has painted Expedition: Everest’s carts rust-red for the sake of convenience inasmuch as theming. This color naturally looked weathered (it’s rusty, after all), and so the more that the coaster carts get used, the more authentic they appear.
Expedition Everest Doesn’t Take Place at Mount Everest!
You are an adventurer seeking an unprecedented journey through a part of the world that resembles (but isn’t) Mount Everest. What you couldn’t possibly realize is that the new path for steam trains will take you all too close to the Yeti’s natural habitat.
Unfortunately, the preferred shortcut on Himalayan Escapes: Tours and Expeditions carries guests through the Forbidden Mountain. And this mountain has a permanent guest, the Yeti. He is the guardian of this abode, and you are distinctly uninvited. You learn this as you ascend the heights of the tea train path, only to discover that tracks ahead were torn apart by…something huge.
The Way Forward Is Backward
The Yeti heard that you were coming, and he took steps to prevent you from following the path. He has wrecked the train tracks, and your only option is to return from whence you came. Backwards and at extreme velocity.
The conceit of Expedition Everest is that conventional roller coasters go forward at top speeds. Disney wanted to do something different with this attraction. They knew that they couldn’t compete with the Millennium Forces of the world in terms of pure velocity. What they did instead was capitalize on good, old-fashioned Imagineering ingenuity to turn the coaster concept around, literally and figuratively.
The maximum speed of Expedition Everest is “only” 50 miles per hour, which isn’t going to blow away the competition. What it can do that nobody else has tried is thrust the same riders backward at 40 miles per hour. Due to the novelty of the experience and the 3.0 G-force of the thrust, it feels so much faster. The reverse ride through the Forbidden Mountain is an unprecedented sensation at any park and certainly not something that an adrenaline junkie would expect at Walt Disney World.
Disney went all out in designing Expedition: Everest. They spent a historic $100 million designing the roller coaster, which Guinness World Records still called a record amount five years after the ride’s debut.
Disney’s Largest Fake Mountain
This money went toward two primary facets of construction plus some stuff we’ll discuss in a later section. The obvious one is the building of the tallest Disney man-made mountain to date. Yes, out of the 20 such structures in existence (thus far), Expedition Everest is the tallest at a height of 199.5 feet. It required 1,800 pounds of steel and 2,000 gallons of paint to bring the realistic mountain to life.
Disney actually would have loved to build the structure even taller. After all, it’s not even the largest one of its kind in Florida. Britton Hill in Walton County is the tallest natural point in the state, but Disney faced a strange governmental hurdle in matching or surpassing that height, 345 feet. They would have had to put lights on the sides of the mountain as a precautionary measure for airplanes. Disney understandably wasn’t willing to ruin the explicit theming of Expedition Everest by doing that.
At 200 feet, it still manages to offer something unprecedented at Walt Disney World. You can (sort of) see the other three parks from the top of Expedition Everest. As you ascend, pay attention to your left. You can see parts of Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot to that side. Meanwhile, Magic Kingdom is straight behind the coaster cart.
Permanent B Mode
The other costly part of construction was the development of the Yeti itself. Disney lovingly crafted its fictional beast to mimic elements of Matterhorn Bobsleds, which also has an abominable snowman make an appearance. They wanted the Animal Kingdom monster to stand apart from his peer, though.
The Yeti is an unprecedented marvel of Imagineering…and also one of their most infamous failures. Standing at almost 25 feet tall with 1,000 square feet of skin, it needs 1,000 snaps and another 250 zippers to stay together.
Alas, the Yeti’s weight is the problem. Disney erred in a math calculation about the 20,000 pounds of Yeti sitting at the base of the artificial mountain. They missed something obvious.
You see, this hulking beast functions in two forms, A Mode and B Mode. In A Mode, the Yeti is much more mobile. He can theoretically move 5 feet horizontally and/or 18 inches vertically. We can stop right there, as you already appreciate the problem. Nothing that weighs 20,000 pounds should try to move up and down on a consistent basis. It creates tremendous stress on the foundation residing beneath the monster.
After only a few months in operation, Imagineers faced a historic problem. The Yeti was breaking the Forbidden Mountain. Each time he swayed, the structure buckled under the pressure. And that’s how the A Mode version of the Yeti ended, leaving us with the legendary B Mode Disco Yeti.
The term Disco Yeti is derisive in nature, although I happen to think he’s kind of cool. In B Mode, he has strobe lighting surrounding him. It offers the illusion of Yeti movement as the spiraling lights combined with the speed of coaster cart approach confuse the viewer. You’re not quite sure what you’re seeing, only that it’s big and furry and colors are bouncing off it from every direction. I love the disorienting nature of the Disco Yeti, but Disney fanatics understandably lament that it’s a bastardized version of the original idea, the A Mode Yeti, the more ferocious beast that moved.
The authenticity of the attraction was critical to Disney park planners. They sent a slew of Imagineers to China, Nepal, and Tibet to learn the local customs. While there, cast members purchased approximately 8,000 “props” which is to say knickknacks and memorabilia local to the Himalayas. You’ll find many of these items on display in the line queue.
Even before you get in line, however, you’ll notice the hard work involved in the accurate theming. Disney imported much of the vegetation including hundreds of shrubs and plants plus 10 different types of Asian trees.
Most of the props involve exploration, adventuring, and/or the Yeti in some way. Disney even took the unusual step of painting the various points of ingress such as doors and windows. Imagineers learned during their frequent visits that people who believe in the existence of the Yeti try to ward away this creature. They use red paint as a way to show that they honor and fear the beast, hoping that the sight of the paint will dissuade the yeti from trying to enter the building. The next time you walk through the line queue, you can see the ubiquity of red paint hidden in plain sight. It’s that level of detail in the theming that differentiate Disney from the competition.
If you love Expedition Everest, YouTube is your friend. Disney joined with Discovery Channel to create a series of videos about the ride’s construction. You can watch the entire production here.
Also, you should note the unusual height requirement the next time that you ride Expedition Everest. You must be as tall as a Yeti footprint to board. That’s 44 inches in human terms.
Here are a few final notes about Expedition Everest. First of all, this ride has a Single Rider line. You should use it whenever you want a quick ride up the Forbidden Mountain. You can usually ride it two or three times for every attempt to wait through the regular line queue. Also, don’t be afraid to ask to sit in the front or back of the roller coaster. Cast members are used to this and will queue you in the appropriate line. You’ll have to wait longer, but the experience is definitely novel. You should try the front and the back at least once in your life.
For more than a decade, Expedition Everest ruled Animal Kingdom as the dominant E Ticket attraction. Even after the arrival of Avatar Flight of Passage, it still maintains its hard-earned status as the most thrilling ride at the park. It’s also on the short list for best adrenaline rush attraction at Walt Disney World. And now that you’ve read all the special details that differentiate it, you should have a deeper appreciation for it the next time you head up (and down) the Forbidden Mountain.
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* Photo credit: D23.com