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In 2006, Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom opened Expedition Everest, the first major thrill ride in that park. It was the first Disney roller coaster to go both forward and backward, and it was an instant hit that won numerous awards. As the cherry on top, it included the biggest audio-animatronic character ever constructed by Walt Disney Imagineering. It was, by all accounts, an amazing attraction... that few people have ever had the chance to fully experience.
You see, that incredibly impressive and undeniably massive audio-animatronic doesn't actually move anymore, and it hasn't for well over a decade. In fact, if you've only visited Walt Disney World since 2008 or so, it's possible you're not even aware the Yeti was ever supposed to move. So let's dive into the history of Expedition Everest and the massive Yeti creation, and why "Disco Yeti" exists today.
Disney's Animal Kingdom was a unique theme park idea from its inception. Rather than simply being another theme park full of rides, the idea was to focus on the natural world and to include as many attractions surrounding actual animal life as traditional theme park rides and shows. The problem is that building something like that isn't cheap, and as is often the case, the realities of budget come up against the blue sky ideas, with budget eventually winning out. In the case of Animal Kingdom, this meant that one of the original lands planned for the park, Beastly Kingdom, wasn't initially built, and was instead planned for a future phase. However, Beastly Kingdom was home to the park's only planned roller coaster at the time, which meant that when Animal Kingdom opened, it was without this theme park mainstay.
While Animal Kingdom was popular at first, as any new park would be, attendance began to drop after only a few years, so plans were soon put in motion to build a roller coaster. It would go into the park's Asia section and would be called Expedition Everest. The steel roller coaster would become the largest attraction in all of Walt Disney World, as well as the most expensive roller coaster ever built at the time, but much of that cost would be due to one single aspect that guests would only see for a few seconds on each ride.
Expedition Everest was largely inspired by Disneyland's Matterhorn, the one roller coaster from the original Disney park that didn't make the leap over to Magic Kingdom. As the bigger and more advanced version of that ride, Expedition Everest was going to need its own, bigger and more advanced version of that ride's signature Yeti. Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde, who was the lead designer on both Expedition Everest and Disney's Animal Kingdom as a whole, certainly went all out when designing the creature.
The Yeti is 25 feet tall and is capable, when functioning, of five feet of horizontal movement and a foot and a half of vertical movement. It's a truly impressive sight to behold. There's just nothing else on the scale if the Yeti anywhere.
Unfortunately, within months of Expedition Everest opening, it was discovered there was a problem. The size and movement of the Yeti was so powerful that the support structure holding it up reportedly began to give way. The understanding is that the fault lies in the concrete base, and as such, it would require an extensive refurbishment that would likely last months. The exact cause of the problem has never been made entirely clear; some rumors indicate there may have been a glitch in the scheduling software for the ride construction, which prevented the concrete at the base of the attraction from curing properly.
It seems that if the Yeti were allowed to keep functioning, the problem would only grow, causing problems with the rest of the attraction. In response, the Yeti was placed into what's called "B-mode." In this mode, the Yeti is completely motionless, and a strobe light effect is added that gives the illusion of movement. This has come to be called Disco Yeti by those who reguarly visit Walt Disney World.
Fixing the Yeti
The most frustrating thing about the Yeti not working is the fact that the problem has nothing to do with the Yeti itself. It would be one thing if there was a technical glitch that prevented the Yeti from moving, but the creation of the largest animated figure on record appears to have been done absolutely perfectly. The reason we haven't seen it move in 10 years is due to problems only tangentially related to the Yeti itself.
Of course, if it was just a technical problem with the Yeti, it would likely be a much easier fix. Back when Walt Disney World closed for business in March, and it was believed the closure would only last a couple weeks, somebody asked Joe Rohde if two weeks would be enough time to fix what needed fixing with Expedition Everest, Unfortunately...
On the one hand, one wonders if, had Walt Disney World known how long the closure would actually be, the time could have been taken to implement the needed fixes. The fact is Expedition Everest has never gone for an extensive refurbishment since it opened, so maybe the last few months would have been a good time to give it an upgrade and update. Of course, considering how much money the parks were losing by being closed, it's unlikely anybody would have been too excited by the idea of spending more to fix the Yeti.
At this point, there are those who wonder if the Yeti will ever be fixed. The Yeti works well enough in B-mode, as most vacationers have no idea what they're missing. Since the massive animatronic is ultimately only a small part of a larger attraction that is still popular as is, maybe the fix will never come. And ultimately, the fix just might not even be possible at this moment. From what Joe Rohde has said recently, it seems the reason that the Yeti has never been fixed may be due to a confluence of unforeseen issues which are simply too complicated to solve with current technology.
Having said that, Joe Rohde has previously committed to fixing the Yeti. It's clearly something he's as passionate about as the fans who continually pester him on Twitter. Here's Rohde discussing the Yeti at D23 Expo in 2013.
Expedition Everest is a fantastic roller coaster even without the massive animatronic Yeti. Still, it's disappointing to know that the attraction is missing something impressive that it could have had. Hopefully, some Imagineer will one day figure out a way to fix the Yeti in a way that's realistic, and that person, whoever they are, will be as beloved by Disney fans as Joe Rohde is today.