Yeti and The Forbidden Mountain by Jim Korkis

Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain opened at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in 2006.

The mountain-like structure is made from 1,800 tons of steel and painted with 2,000 gallons of stain and paint. It took three years and more than 38 miles of rebar, 5,000 tons of structural steel, and 10,000 tons of concrete to build the mountain. Over 200,000 square feet of rock work was done.

The structure was built by Vekoma, a Dutch amusement ride manufacturer noted for its work on roller coasters including ones for Disney theme parks like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in the Magic Kingdom.

The total cost for the attraction was estimated at over a $100 million. It is the tallest artificial mountain in the World at 199 feet but not the tallest mountain in Florida which is Britton Hill at an elevation of 345 feet.

The Yeti is seen as the protector of the mountain, it is also the biggest, most complex Audio-Animatronics figure to ever be created by Disney or anyone else when it first appeared in the attraction.

The Forbidden Mountain is not Everest. Everest is represented by the barren background peak on the far right that through the use of forced perspective seems even further off in the distance. Guests are on an expedition to Everest on an old mountain railroad operated by the fictional Himalayan Escapes – Tours and Expeditions company but are taking a risky shortcut through the Forbidden Mountain to get to the Everest base camp. The attraction has nearly a mile long length of track that encompasses steep climbs, sharp plunges and a backward slide.

Joe Rohde, who was the executive designer of the attraction, in 2007 said:

“The name of our story is Expedition Everest, but nothing in the shape of the ‘real’ Everest says, ‘forbidden’,” “So we created the narrative device of a foreground mountain range made of shapes that say, ‘Don’t go here!’

“Everest rises beyond this wall of claw-like spires, a tempting goal. The Forbidden Mountain expresses its ‘forbidden-ness’ in a shape that echoes the teeth and claws of the yeti itself, dominating the entire land across which the story plays out. This is one of the key principles in narrative place-making.

“The look of Expedition Everest is based on careful research into the architecture, landscape and culture of the Himalayas: research and design guided by our theme. Our goal was not to create a replica, nor to represent every aspect of Himalayan life, but to gather those specific details, which were both authentic and supported the thrust of our theme, the intrinsic value of nature.

“Expedition Everest is not meant to be a substitute for a trip to the real Himalayas; it is a fictional story told in a realistic style.

“While the environment is visually convincing and filled with accurate details, including architectural elements and props made for us by craftspeople in the Himalayas, its real purpose is to convey messages.

“The idea of the Yeti as a protector is embedded in shrines depicting the Yeti holding the mountains in his hands, bronzes of the Yeti in the traditional ‘keep out’ posture of a Tibetan guardian, flyers printed from wood blocks warning visitors against offending the Yeti.”

The Imagineers who designed the mountain used digital imaging to create a model. They actually created 24 different ride models before settling on the one that was built. They created a virtual model after scanning with laser technology, one of their earlier models. The shell of the mountain was created digitally into 6 foot square pieces that fit together like puzzle pieces.

“Millions have ridden it,” Rohde said . “Most of those have come for the simple fun of a great ride. But of those millions, some have come away inspired and informed by the richness of the story. And as a percentage of the huge total, that number is also large.”

The queue for the attraction Expedition Everest takes guests through the Himalayan Escapes Tours and Expeditions Booking Office located in the remote (fictional) village of Serka Zong in the (fictional) Kingdom of Anandapur located in the foothills of the Himalayas to obtain permits.

The company organizes a number of different tours and expeditions with “Expedition Everest” being the name of just one of their specific tours. Himalayan Escapes is operated by a native Anandapuri, Norbu, and his business partner, a British entrepreneur named Bob. They operate out of a building that had previously been used as the headquarters of the Royal Anandapur Tea Company. They have refurbished a steam train that had been used by the tea company to bring harvested tea leaves down the mountains.

This train now takes customers to the base camp using a shortcut through the Forbidden Mountain, supposedly the location of a mysterious environmental creature guardian referred to as the Yeti.

Norbu and Bob’s office is filled with dozens of small details from a map of the Himalayas to a tour board depicting the status of the various expeditions. In fact, there are so many details in the various buildings leading to the attraction vehicles that guests are unable to see it all including a yellowed newspaper clipping from The Anandapur Reporter “Serving the Nation for 100 Years”. While some stories with headlines like “Trekkers Feared Lost” and “Herders Report Missing Yak” are missing their stories. The lead feature is complete:

“Forbidden Mountain Railway ReOpens

Locals Fear Wrath of Yeti

“SERKA ZONG—Despite dire warning from irate local residents, the old Anandapur Rail Services route through Forbidden Mountain was reopened today. Closed since 1934 under mysterious circumstances, the railroad, formerly operated by the Royal Anandapur Tea Co. was refurbished by Himalayan Escapes Tours and Expeditions.

“The intent, say the operators, is to provide safe, efficient transport to base camp at Mount Everest and environs. Hundreds of western trekkers and climbers are expected to make the journey to Serka Zong to book passage on the new service.

“In the heyday of the great tea plantations that flourished in the region, private rail lines were established to carry produce to distant markets. The Royal Anandapur Tea Company used the Forbidden Mountain route extensively in the 1920s and early 1930s.

“However, beginning in 1933, the railroad was plagued with accidents. Some drew a connection between the mishaps and increasing British expeditionary attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest, invoking the spirit of the guardian of the sacred mountain.

“By 1934, continual equipment breakdowns and track breakages caused the tea company to shutter its facilities and pull up stakes. The legend of a sacred beast continued to loom large among locals, coming to a head in 1982 with the tragic disappearance of the Forbidden Mountain Expedition.

“However, warnings and naysayers aside, the daring entrepreneurs behind Himalayan Escapes were determined to put on a loud, colorful show to celebrate their achievement. Local government officials in attendance trumpeted the event as a landmark enterprise, marking a new era of prosperity and opportunity for Serka Zong. It is indeed our hope that this is the case.”

According to the official Imagineering back story in the queue line of Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, two business men Bob (from Australia who handles the actual booking for Himalayan Escapes) and Norbu (who has lived in Serka Zong his entire life and is best known for his knowledge of the mountain) have rebuilt the existing railroad that once transported tea in order to take travelers to the base of Mount Everest for profit.

As travelers exit Bob and Norbu’s office, they begin to see shrines of the Yeti in various sizes. The majority of these shrines are showered with jewels and food, symbolizing the tremendous respect the locals have for the Yeti. Before entering the area, guests saw more shrines and prayer flags and red paint (to ward off evil spirits). Unexpectedly, guests sometimes take part in the story by giving their own offerings of coins to the many shrines throughout the queue. The money collected is donated to animal conservation efforts around the world.

After passing the fields of green tea leaves, travelers walk through Tashi’s Trek and Tongba Shop filled with hiking supplies and equipment. The shelves holding food supplies in the queue are actually tea-drying cabinets, and there is even some “Yet-tea” among the dry goods.

Once travelers have finished their shopping, they then enter into the Yeti Museum of Professor Perma Dorje, Ph.D.

The museum, which was transformed from a tea warehouse, is dedicated to “the serious study of the scientific and cultural aspects of the mysterious creature known and revered throughout the Himalayas as the Yeti.”

The first half of the museum focuses on the geographic region of Nepal, the people of Nepal and their interpretations of what they believe the Yeti to look like. This setting is meant to establish a sense of reality before venturing into the fantasy.

The Lost Expedition of 1982 is displayed in the museum. Legend has it that, in 1982, a group of trackers went in search of the Yeti. When none returned after several weeks, a search group was sent to find these trackers only to discover they had not survived. The remains of their expedition, including their tent, hiking equipment and camera are shown throughout the exhibit.

A little more than halfway through the museum, travelers notice pictures of lowland jungle animals, midland forest animals and mountain animals. The purpose of this display is to rationalize that if these animals can survive the different areas of the mountain, then why can’t a creature like the Yeti also survive?

Towards the end of the Yeti Museum, travelers notice a brown display cabinet filled with actual different discoveries that Walt Disney Imagineers made during an expedition by Disney and Conservation International to the Himalayas to once again establish a sense of reality.

Upon exiting the museum to board their train seat, travelers see one last warning sign posted by Professor Dorje:

“Respect the Power of the Yeti. The weight of the evidence leads to the inescapable conclusion: The Yeti is Real. You are about to enter the scared domain of the Yeti, guardian and protector of The Forbidden Mountain. Those who proceed with respect and reverence for the sanctity of the natural environment and its creatures should have no fear. To all others, a warning you risk the wrath of the Yeti. Prof. Perma Dorje, Ph.D. Curator The Yeti Museum.”

Of course, Bob and Norbu can not allow the good professor to scare off potential customers and so they also post a sign that reads: “The opinions expressed by the curator of the Yeti Museum in no way reflect the views of the owners and operators of Himalayan Escapes, Tours and Expeditions.”

The Yeti was the biggest, most complex Audio-Animatronics figure to ever be created by Disney or anyone else when it first appeared in the attraction. It stands 25-feet tall and the movement is controlled by 19 actuators. When operating in “A-mode” the massive Yeti animatronic figure can move five feet horizontally in a few seconds and 18 inches vertically. Its skin and fur covering measures out to about a 1,000 square feet, and it’s held in place by around 1,000 snaps and 250 zippers.

Most of the figure’s weight is held up by a slide and boom structure emerging from its back. It was powered by a 3000 psi hydraulic thruster that could be recharged in 20 seconds and the combined thrust of all the figure’s linear actuators working together could put out a force equivalent to a jet engine. Because of this, the support base for the figure and its boom would be kept separate from the structures of the mountain and the ride track

The final version was designed by the Imagineers after the culmination of extensive research of the Yeti’s role in Nepalese and Tibetan culture and primatology to create a believable animal. These influences included the Gigantopithecus often cited as a potential identity for large ape cryptids, as well as the snub-nosed langur, a high-altitude monkey living in the mountains of Sichuan.

I was fortunate to attend a cast member only presentation given by Joe Rohde on April 3, 2006 prior to the opening of the Expedition Everest attraction:

“Most people in the Himalayas believe the Yeti is real. It is not like Big Foot. It is not something that like six rednecks in a bar think is real and everybody else thinks they’re crazy. That is not the Yeti. When you go to the Himalayas, it’s really hard to find people who don’t think the Yeti is either real right now or was real a few years ago. The Yeti is real to these people.

“We wanted try to make our Yeti as real as possible and one of the things we did was talk to real Sherpas about the Yeti. ‘What do you think it looks like? How does it move? How big is it? What do we know? What do we know that people have ever said about the Yeti?’

“So we got all these interviews from people; we got all these stories; we had that aspect of the Yeti. And then we also did a bunch of scientific research, going, ‘Alright, alright. If there really was a Yeti, what might this Yeti really look like and how could we make a Yeti that would incorporate the descriptions but also incorporate the logic of a real animal that could really live there?’

“And one of the animals that we looked at is this, ’cause it’s obviously one of the creepiest animals in the world is a Szechuan golden snub-nosed monkey. They’re very, very rare. They used to not be rare at all, they used to be all over the place; but now, of course thanks to us, they’re rare.

“And they, obviously, they live in a very cold area; an area where it snows in the winter. And unlike many animals, they don’t migrate down the mountain to a warm place. They stay in the snow all winter and they’ve adapted to this cold weather environment.

“So we basically took this monkey—the idea of this monkey—and we make it bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and we took some ape-like characteristics and we blended them together to get our Yeti. So if you look at our Yeti and think of this monkey you’ll see all kinds of interesting parallels between our Yeti and this monkey, which we just sort of blended together to get something that you could believe would be real.

“The Yeti doesn’t live on the mountain. He lives in the jungle. He goes up into the mountain. We made our Yeti’s fur exactly the same color and texture as these incredibly dense festoons of Spanish moss that hang in all these Himalayan forests. So if our Yeti was in that forest, standing still, he would be invisible.”

The figure was constructed to sit atop a 46 feet tall independent concrete base meant to hold its weight while allowing the beast to reach down on passengers in the passing train vehicles, terrifying riders and confirming that the legends of the creature were true.

By 2008, the stress caused by the Yeti’s complex movement split the figure’s framing, which would cause a catastrophic malfunction to the ride if the figure continued running in “A-mode.” The understanding is that the fault is in the concrete base and would require an extensive refurbishment that would likely last months. The glitch is apparently not in the figure itself. In addition, with all the money the Disney parks have been losing since the closures and restrictions during the pandemic make it even more unlikely the Yeti is a priority to fix.

It has been operating in “B-mode,” which meant no movement. Imagineers have installed a strobe light behind the Yeti trying to give it the appearance of movement and causing him to be referred to by Disney guests as the Disco Yeti.

The vocalizations for the Yeti were provided by voice artist Fred Tatasciore. His voice is heard in many Disney videogames and attractions as well as the giant animated troll in the movie Enchanted and Pacha in the first season of the animated series The Emperor’s New School.

Rohde, the creator of the creature, has said over the years:

“It’s not an issue of maintenance access, they were part of the design team and set the standard. In fact, it was seen as a model collaborative process.

“It’s an unexpected and unforeseen set of issues, very complex, with no easy or timely solutions as of yet. These guys did not ignore something or botch it. Innovation is like physical exploration of unknown spaces. There is stuff out there that you didn’t know, and you only encounter it by exploration. But then….there it is.

“You have to understand, it’s a giant complicated machine sitting on top of, like, a 46-foot tall tower in the middle of a finished building. So, it’s really hard to fix, but we are working on it. And we continue to work on it. We have tried several ‘things’, none of them quite get to the key, of the 40-foot tower inside of a finished building, but we are working on it.

“I will fix the Yeti someday, I swear.”

Rohde officially retired from Imagineering January 4, 2021. The Yeti remains unfixed.

The only way to fix the Yeti is to close down Expedition Everest for a lengthy refurbishment where it can be accessed and worked on. Up until recently, that seemed impossible due to the attraction’s huge popularity but with the opening of Pandora – The World of Avatar it now becomes more of a possibility since that area and its attractions would absorb the guest attendance.

Rohde said: “Here’s exactly what I think: There’s too much evidence for some kind of real creature for there to be no real creature behind the legend of the Yeti. I think it is something real, somewhere in the background, that has migrated and mutated into a series of legends, some of which are very obviously fairy tale legends. I want to stress that what we have done is a story. And it is constructed like a story.”