Expedition Disney

Riders board train cars and rumble across rickety-looking tracks over briges and through valleys in...

Riders board train cars and rumble across rickety-looking tracks over briges and through valleys in a bid to escape the fierce Yeti monster. -- Photo courtesy of Walt Disney Co.

STEVE TILLEY -- Sun Media

, Last Updated: 10:06 AM ET

I have a very clear memory of going on Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds ride when I was 12 years old, and being terrified by the roaring abominable snowman you glimpse while zipping through the mountain's icy caverns.

The Matterhorn's old-school animatronic critter is man-sized and barely moves, except for waving his arms a little. Still, it still sent shivers of genuine fear up my pre-teen spine back in the day.

Fast forward to 2006: I've grown up, but so has the Yeti. He's really, really grown up.

Expedition Everest, which opened April 7 at Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom theme park in Florida, is the 18th "mountain" thrill ride in the Disney parks' globe-spanning range of peaks. But those crafty Disney Imagineers have outdone themselves with this one.

Rising 61 metres above Animal Kingdom's Asia-themed land, Expedition Everest sees you boarding a converted tea-hauling steam train in the fictional Nepalese village of Serka Zong for a trip through the Himalayas, home of the legendary Yeti.

It seems the eco-friendly Yeti isn't very pleased to have a bunch of tourists defiling his home, though.

After your relatively peril-free ascent to the summit, the train slows to a stop on an incline. The track ahead has been torn apart, the work of the ticked-off creature. It's quiet. Too quiet. Now what?

Suddenly, your train is plunging in reverse through a dark and twisting mountain cavern. After several harrowing turns, it comes to another stop, where you see a shadow of the Yeti shredding a section of track before bounding away, possibly to meet up with your train further down the line. Uh oh.

The train rolls forward again, careening down a stomach-lurching 24-metre drop and up through one final cave, where, sure enough, you meet the Yeti face to face. As the train flies beneath the ledge he's perched on, the furry giant reaches down to swipe at you with his claws.

And I'll admit it, I covered my head and ducked. It was like being 12 all over again.

While the massive animatronic Yeti is a big part of the ride's thrill factor, the level of detail that's gone into recreating the look of a Nepalese village around the base of the mountain isn't just impressive, it's almost obsessive.

Disney Imagineers travelled several times to Nepal, interviewing locals, taking thousands of reference photos and hauling back crate after crate of goods, while other artifacts were painstakingly replicated by stateside craftsmen.

"We wanted to research and understand how these people live, so we could use that as inspiration to design this village," said Imagineer Mike Lentz.

"These buildings aren't replicas of particular buildings we say, rather they're inspired by buildings we saw."

In all, 120 different species of plant life and more than 2,000 authentic pieces of gear make up the village and mountain base, where the queue winds through everything from a mountaineering equipment office to a temple garden to a Yeti museum dedicated to lore about the creature.

It's all fascinating to look at, not to mention a good way to kill time while you wait in line for the ride. But is it authentic? You'd have to ask someone who's been there.

Like Laurie Skreslet, the first Canadian to summit Everest. The engaging 56-year-old climber and children's book author accompanied us on several rides on Expedition Everest, and had a fantastic time. Plus, it's a lot less work than ascending the real mountain.

"That's exactly the way it looks over there," Skreslet said of Expedition Everest's replica village, noting that about the only thing missing was the pungent smell of incense.

As for the Yeti, Skreslet said there are famous climbers like Reinhold Mesner, the first man to summit Everest without the aid of oxygen tanks, who believe the creature really exists.

"That makes me believe that there's something there," Skreslet said. "So who knows, maybe this next visit there I'll be asking more questions."

Among the Nepalese locals, though, belief in the Yeti is much more widespread. The creature is part of their culture.

"They believe in it," Skreslet said. "It's what mothers say to their kids: 'You behave, or the Yeti's going to get you.' I'd listen to that if my mom said something like that."

Especially if you were 12 years old. For some reason, that seems to be an especially Yeti-sensitive age.

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BOTTOM LINE

GETTING THERE

- Air Canada and WestJet offer direct flights from Toronto to Florida's Orlando International Airport.

LODGING

- Accommodation at the 23 Walt Disney World resort hotels ranges from $79 US per night for the Pop Century Resort and All-Star Resorts to $359 per night for the Grand Floridian Resort and Spa. Worth noting is the 35-year-old Contemporary Resort ($249 US per night) is midway through renovating all of its guest rooms.

MORE INFORMATION

- Surf to waltdisneyworldplanningkit.ca to order a Canadian-customized vacation planning kit. A "Magic Your Way" package for a family of four, including six nights of accommodation and theme park tickets, is $1,500 US. Call 407-939-8687 to book or contact a travel agent.


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