LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- To build a mountain you start with the Roof of the World...the Himalayas where Earth's mightiest peaks scrape the heavens. When those mountains also are steeped in deep lore and legend, including a fearsome creature, it only adds to the mountain you are building, the story you are telling.
That quest is what inspired Joe Rohde, creative executive with Walt Disney Imagineering.
With the just-completed Expedition Everest: Mission Himalayas, the Walt Disney Company joined with Conservation International and Discovery Networks on a cultural and scientific journey from one end of the eastern Himalayas to the other.
The team searched for new plants and animals not yet discovered in the eastern Himalayan region from China to Nepal, one of the most botanically rich temperate regions in the world with an estimated 12,000 plant species, including 3,500 found nowhere else.
Rohde joined the unique journey to investigate the powerful legend of the yeti, the environs and architecture of the Himalayas and the people and culture. His goal was to bring a new level of authenticity to Expedition Everest, an exciting attraction opening spring 2006 at Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World Resort.
Premiering the week of April 9, 2006, on the Travel Channel, "Expedition Everest: Journey to Sacred Lands" follows the journeys and discoveries of Rohde as he embarks on his adventure to Everest. Providing unprecedented coverage of this artist's journey to reveal this complex and unique region, the special will cover the miles traveled to research and replicate so accurately the culture, architecture and customs of Nepal for the newest Disney attraction.
"Imagineers are renowned for our passionate approach to creating the legendary experiences guests have come to expect from Disney," said Rohde. "We are going to incredible lengths to tell this story to our guests: researching cultural and spiritual legends through local people who have reported sightings of the yeti, and governments who preserve pristine lands in the name of the creature known as 'protector of the mountains.' "
Rohde is quite familiar with that part of the world, having traveled there on numerous occasions. In 2004, Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering architect Stefan Hellwig and production manager Chris Kelly went to the Nepalese Himalayas to study the lands, architecture, colors and culture to shape their design for the mythical village area of the attraction they were creating.
After a journey by jet, surrey, helicopter and donkey, the trio reached their destination -- a 1,000-year-old monastery near Mustang. The goal was to immerse themselves in the region, to gain a sense of place that is not possible from looking at photographs or even films. They returned with an understanding of what it feels like to be in the Himalayan culture and environment. And as the Expedition Everest design team focused on creating that "sense of place," it was invaluable.
"Touching the prayer wheels, hearing the tonal spectrum of animal bells, experiencing a 360-degree view from the mountaintop monastery and seeing how the local people applied color to their homes left a deep impression on us," said Rohde. "This experience allowed us to approach this project with an insight and authenticity we could attain only by being there."
When Walt Disney World guests approach the village area that signals the entry to Expedition Everest, they will see how the research efforts paid off. They will be transported to the Himalayan region as they walk by colorful flags looping from building to building and pole to pole. Emblazoned with animal symbols, the banners are inspired by the Himalayan prayer flags that send thoughts and prayers to the wind. Throughout the village area, the yeti appears in architectural details, revealing its dual existence as earthly creature and mythological legend. And the adornments couldn't be more real: Nepalese carvers created these special pieces based on their beliefs and local stories. At the Mandir, a traditional Himalayan shrine structure, wooden doors depict the creature in his very real realm, coming down from the mountain to snatch up a yak.
The team talked with local Himalayan monks about earth-based pigments, studied the carved details of local earthen, rock and wooden buildings and researched cultural iconography -- all with the goal of creating an experience that would be so extraordinarily immersive and real, that guests to Disney's Animal Kingdom would believe, if even for just a moment, that they'd been transported to the other side of the world.
The team also was interested in learning about the beliefs and culture of the region.
For thousands of years, diverse cultures along the Himalayan mountain range have believed in the yeti -- some as a real, living being and others as a spiritual protector. Many believe that sightings of this mysterious, hairy creature mean the forest is pure, pristine and undisturbed, and as the great forests disappear, so, too, does the yeti. Nonetheless, its spirit lives today as a great, mythological creature, important and essential to the Himalayan people.
Local people told Rohde of animal carcasses tossed high in trees, yak skulls broken in half with amazing force, and tufts of bluish hair caught on branches. All these were attributed to the yeti. Many others told stories of yetis eating Spanish moss, a sign of a pristine habitat and underlying signal that the yeti seeks our natural areas to protect.
To learn more about these beliefs, Imagineers made a special visit to the Ding Guo Shan monastery, known for its preservation of sacred lands and belief in the yeti. Accessed by a narrow slippery road with sheer drop-offs, the thousand-year-old Ding Guo Shan sits atop a mountain, surrounded by undulating wreaths of clouds. As the team approached, the clouds parted to reveal the forested mountain surrounding the meadow and the monastery. Young monks were playing on the long trumpets and shawms (ancient woodwinds) as the trekkers approached: the community had come out in full dress to greet the team.
The team stayed at the monastery and joined the monks for meals for three days. Rohde interviewed the Rinpoche, a sacred man known as "the living Buddha," about Ding Guo Shan and the yeti. The Rinpoche said that the last sighting was in June.
The monks described the yeti by placing both hands above their heads in a flattened cone shape to indicate the distinctive shape of the high domed ridge of the yeti's head, which is part of many descriptions. They described the hair of the yeti as radiating from its belly. The older monk tried to indicate the stride of the yeti, which seemed to be about five to six feet. They described its feet as being quite long. Rohde reports, "I asked the Living Buddha point blank what he thought the yeti was. He replied that it was two things at once. A real animal and an immortal, a deity."
Later in the journey, the team reached the Qinling mountains, near Xian, the area known for the buried terra cotta army of the first Chinese Emperor. Dr. Anne Savage, specialist in Golden Monkeys and primatologist from Disney's Animal Kingdom, arranged for the team to hike into a reserve that is home to Golden Monkeys, the animals providing the inspiration for Expedition Everest's yeti. Conservation International President Russ Mittemeier, internationally renowned primatologist, joined the team for this special opportunity.
With strange, haunting faces covered in hair everywhere but the smallest areas around the eyes and nose, blue skin, and unfathomable dark eyes, the Golden Monkeys are a perfect model of a cold-climate primate. "Our yeti is like a huge scary version of one of these monkeys...yet the size of an ape," said Rohde. Seeing these rare animals in their native habitat provides a new perspective on the authenticity of the images the team has blended into the attraction in Florida. The work by Rohde and the Imagineering team to create a believable world around the exciting new attraction continues the real-life storytelling that is the hallmark of Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Guests who visit Disney's Animal Kingdom are transported into animal worlds both real and imaginary. Forests, jungles and rivers dominate the landscape, seeming to overpower the buildings themselves. Animals appear to roam without boundaries. The storytellers of Walt Disney Imagineering set out to create a place of striking realism and authenticity, a place that feels so real, that real adventures might happen.