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Thrills with lessons

Gannett News Service
April 9, 2006

Disney's new ride includes learning about Everest

Joe Rohde moves mountains, and he hopes to move children's minds, too.

A little bit gypsy, anthropologist, architect, engineer and conservationist, Rohde has transported his Mount Everest 8,472 miles from Nepal to Orlando, Fla. Expedition Everest at Disney's Animal Kingdom opened Saturday.

Rohde, a chief executive with Disney's "Imagineering" and lead designer of the attraction, attacked the project with childlike invention, but he designed it as a fun-factor thrill ride with a classroom kick. It is presented as an educational tool bridging ancient legends of the yeti (also known as Abominable Snowman) with the very real habitats and lifestyles of Himalayans.

Ride's realism

It is designers such as Rohde who are nurturing a more conspicuous breed of theme park attraction where the education value - especially to young visitors - is as compelling as the actual ride. While this is not a new concept, Expedition Everest wears it on its sleeve.

Disney formed a partnership with Conservation International to help and another partnership with Discovery cable channels for actual expeditions to explore new animal species and the legend of yeti. Discovery networks' Travel Channel will air a TV special - "Expedition Everest: Journey to Sacred Lands" - beginning this week, and Discovery's Web site already has virtual interactive expeditions to coincide with the opening of the attraction.

"We have a series of ideas that articulate the (Animal Kingdom) park," says Rohde, who went on five missions to the Himalayas during the development of Everest.

That's "the value of nature, the premise of adventure. It's always about animals from some particular human point of view," he says. That can mean "biological animals we respect for their beauty, etc., and animals that we invent that come out of the realm of fantasy and animals that we study like dinosaurs."

"Everything we do at Animal Kingdom somehow gets back to these ideas, and the conservation messages tend to have underpinnings of love and respect for nature."

Yeti folklore

Expedition Everest and its underlying story of a runaway tea train that encounters the legendary yeti also documents the genuine Himalayan beliefs that the yeti does exist and is a protector of these forbidden mountains. Whether the animal is real or simply folkloric, it is real to the ancient cultures of Tibet and Nepal.

"I have personally great faith in play as an educational tool. ... What you are going to learn from this is going to be experiential," Rohde says. "I think the same thing would happen if I was to take a 10-year-old child and drop him in Katmandu. ... He would have the precise same response (as visiting Disney's Everest), and that would be the stimulation of a tremendous curiosity."

"Even if you weren't there to become educated, you're going to walk away going, 'Whoa, people built homes out of stone and mud in Tibet. People in Tibet have prayer flags like that. They (Tibetans) think a lot about mystical things.' "

Opportunity to go deeper

The attraction is "constructed to survive deeper and deeper analysis," he says. "You want people to be able to engage it at their level, which includes, 'I don't care about any of this, I just want to ride the ride. ... Thank you very much for building this very fast ride.' "

"If you are that kind of person who wants to delve deeper into these things, there are places that become very expository. For example, within the queue line is an area that we just call the Yeti museum, and it passes pretty admirably, especially considering it is a queue line, as a real yeti museum. It presents real Tibetan culture, real Tibetan artifacts, presented as what they are and what they are used for and who the people are and where they come from. There's a lot of information for the people who want it."

"In my opinion, you have to be a complete masochist to do Fastpass," Rhode says, referring to the park's by-appointment tickets that bypass standing in lines. "It's like I prepared this six-course meal and you're only gonna eat the cherries."

Jay Rasulo, chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, thinks Everest - educational or pure imagination - is fitting with the company's mandate that every attraction tell a story.

"One could say that the Himalayas are not fantasy, but for most of us, riding a train through the Himalayas is something we'll never do in our lives, and certainly this legend of the yeti, which has both mythical as well as actual bases, seemed to us something that would be the perfect material to tell a great Disney story," Rasulo said.

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