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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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.