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Natural Illusions

Disney uses creative landscaping to take you a world away.


The colossal mountain is the home of the theme park's newest ride, Expedition Everest, which simulates a perilous journey aboard a runaway train through the Himalaya mountains. To replicate this famous landmark, Disney Imagineers ventured to the top of the world — into the mysterious and foreboding Himalayas.

"[We] journeyed to Nepal a number of times, immersing ourselves in the legends, lore and heart of the place," says Joe Rohde, creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering. "Our goal was to create an authentically detailed environment that reflects the culture and traditions of the Himalayan countries we explored during our research."

After the initial research was finished, it was up to Becky Bishop, director of area development for Walt Disney Imagineering, to design all the landscaping elements of the 6-acre site.

"We use landscaping to not only design the area but also to support the story," Bishop explains. "I started my research in 2002 and began planting a year and a half ago. It takes about three to five years from conception to installation."

The natural landscape of Expedition Everest was created specifically to evoke the lowlands surrounding Mount Everest. More than 900 bamboo plants were used in the project, along with 10 species of trees and 114 species of shrubs.

"If guests to the theme park have been to Bhutan or Nepal, they will see a resemblance," Bishop says.

Bishop relied on a few clever tricks to create certain impressions. "We may use a usual plant in an unusual way or an unusual plant in a usual way," she says, noting that shrubs or trees could be look-alikes or cousins of a specific species found in the Himalayas. For example, sabal palms (Florida's state tree) and camphor trees found in the state are used in unusual situations. "One palm tree we found has a camphor tree growing out of the base," Bishop says. "We think that tree is about 75 story, plant material in the courtyard near the temple takes on a gnarled, untamed look. "We found a mulberry tree with a fabulous base that had a piece of 1905 to 1910 ironwork stuck in it," Bishop says, noting that she traveled around the country looking for these unusual plants and trees. "It looks like it could be from Nepal."

Yucca cactus and California chaparral plants were placed along the hillside. "We took pine trees and cut up the branches. We 'Venus de Miloed' them," Bishop says. "People will look at them and think, 'What is that?' It's clearly from another part of the world."

Bishop goes on to explain that villagers in the Himalayas cut down their trees to the stump. "They cut the wood because it was a form of wealth. They put the cut pieces on top of their roofs, indicating their wealth. We wanted to get some trees that had [this type of] character to them. We ran across one tree that had a knotted, bulbous character. It was so bizarre [and wonderful for our landscape]."

To create the illusion of distance and obliterate the horizon line, Bishop and her crew applied a technique known as forced perspective, planting different sizes and species of bamboo. The mountain's closer features along the bottom are detailed and massive, and they become smaller near the peak. Large-leaf bamboo trees cradle the bottom of the mountain, while thinner-leaf bamboos line the midway point. The highest levels of the mountain are surrounded by fine-leaf bamboos and monkey puzzle trees.

"Monkey puzzle trees are dark green evergreens [native to Chile]," Bishop says. "They provide a neat texture to add in with the bamboos." She adds that the color also adds to the perspective and scale changes.

As passengers ride the old mountain railway destined for the foot of Mount Everest, they pass by an abandoned tea plantation where Imagineers have planted Walters' viburnum, a small brush plant native to Florida with leathery dark-green leaves similar to the leaves of tea plants. The train also rolls through thick bamboo forests and past thundering waterfalls and fern grottoes brimming with flowering rhododendrons before heading for a showdown with the mysterious yeti (known to some as the abominable snowman).

"Seeing the yeti will really startle the guests because it is so real, so convincing. It is the most mammoth and sophisticated Audio-Animatronics figure ever created by Walt Disney Imagineering," Rohde says.

Almost as real as being in the Himalayas.HS

Expedition Everest, located in Disney's Animal Kingdom, opens in April.


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