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Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Exclusive Behind-the-Scenes Look at Disney's Expedition Everest Roller Coaster

When it comes to theme parks,
Disney is positively Apple-like in its secrecy—ask a Disney employee how one of their rides or attractions works, and you're likely to be told "magic". So it's not surprising that, even though Expedition Everest (one of the tallest and fastest roller coasters Disney has ever built) has been open at its Animal Kingdom park since 2006, the company has never let a journalist see the guts inside its mountain-like structure, until now. The two stipulations given: No photography allowed inside, and we must visit before dawn to beat the morning maintenance checks.

It is 6:15 am when I meet Diego Parras, a Disney Imagineer (what the company calls the creative force behind its theme parks and rides) and my tour guide. At this pre-dawn hour, the park is empty, save for a few Disney employees. It is also eerily quiet, with none of the parades, children, music or grinding gears of machinery that characterize a theme park in operation. And for an adult such as myself, who spent his childhood making annual pilgrimages to the notoriously secretive Disney parks, it's an incredibly revealing experience: a rare glimpse behind the Mouse's curtain.

To enter the coaster's interior, we walk along its track for several paces, before hanging a right through a door and into the mountain structure itself. The interior is hollow and resembles a large loading dock or parking lot. Although this room is pitch black during the day, the lights have been turned on so we can see inside.

There are support beams of various colors, which I am told are connected to independent intertwined structures. Black beams hold the ride up—a dynamic structure that is designed to be moveable—while red beams support a rigid framework and a structure of faux rocks gives the attraction its mountain-like look. "Each piece of the three structures was built at a scheduled time so that they could come together like Lego blocks," Parras says.

We leave the mountain's guts and walk back to the tracks. I look up and see a 22-foot tall robotic Yeti—the largest animatronic robot Disney has ever made. Although most riders only see the Yeti for a few seconds, lit sparingly by strobe lights, the beast became an object of obsessive perfectionism from Disney's Imagineers.

"One guy even brought a bucket of mud which he began packing between the toes," Parras says. "And we teamed up with a primate expert, because we wanted to know what a primate that had to live in this area would look like."

Of course, the Imagineers' obsessive attention to detail is evident in the entire ride, from the prop-laden queuing area (filled with objects pulled from a number of Imagineers' trips to the Himalayas—even the nails used to hang pictures come from the region) to the sounds the coaster cars make.

Most coaster's create a "clicking" noise as they climb a ride's initial ascent. This is a byproduct of the anti-rollback system—a safety mechanism designed to catch a car if it starts to slide backwards. But to Disney's Imagineers, this noise was viewed as an unacceptable diversion from the ride's Himalayan theme.

"The sound had to go away, and so we went back to drawing board to design a new system from scratch that doesn't make the noise," Parras says. The result: a brand new anti-rollback system that allows the cars to ride slightly above the sawtooth-like brakes. If the cars begin to slow down, the ride forces them down and into the brakes.

The next day I got to actually ride Expedition Everest. Unlike most Disney rides, which focus on atmosphere more than adrenaline, the ride is a pure thrill. It’s far faster than Space Mountain, and you can feel the G’s twist your stomach into a knot. We here at Popular Mechanics live for the nitty gritty and the techy, and despite the company line that "magic" plays a greater role in propelling Disney rides than physics, seeing the coaster's guts made the trip on it that much more enjoyable.