Joe Rohde Talks About DAK's Yeti

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Disneyland Park's Matterhorn has an Abominable Snowman lurking in its interior, but the creature is not as elaborate or impressive as its cousin that threatens guests at Disney's Animal Kingdom in Expedition Everest.

When the Expedition Everest attraction opened officially in June 2006, the Yeti was the largest and most complex Audio-Animatronics figure ever built by Walt Disney Imagineering.

It is 25-feet tall and is controlled by 19 actuators working together that can allow it to move 5 feet horizontally and 18 inches vertically, literally making it able to lunge in threateningly toward the ride vehicles.

With all of its hydraulic cylinders combined, the Yeti had slightly more than 259,000 pounds force—potentially more instantaneous power than a 747-400 airliner. His skin and fur (6,000 pounds of different furs) covering measures out to about 1,000 square feet, and it's held in place by around 1,000 snaps and 250 zippers.

The roars are provide by Fred Tastasciore, who has an extensive resume as a voice actor, including providing the voice of The Hulk in several Marvel animated projects, including Phineas and Ferb: Mission Marvel.

Will the Expedition Everest Yeti finally get a much-needed repair during the upcoming WDW anniversary?

Soon after the attraction opened, the Yeti figure's framing split and, because the 46-foot-tall platform it is on was sealed within the mountain superstructure, it would be expensive and time consuming to access and repair it—especially since it would be impractical to shut down the attraction that was drawing so many guests to the park.

As a result, strobe lights and fans are used to blow the yeti's fur around to make it appear as if he is moving. This is referred to as "B-Mode" or by Disney fans as "Disco Yeti." The mountain façade, the Yeti, and the roller coaster are three independent structures that each reach the ground-level and do not touch the other two structures.

There have been rumors that with the upcoming WDW anniversary and the popularity of Pandora that the attraction might be temporarily shut down to repair the Yeti figure.

On April 3, 2006, while working at WDW, I was able to attend a presentation with Imagineer Joe Rohde where he talked about the new attraction and, in particular, his version of the Yeti. Here is a short excerpt from that presentation once again transcribed from my copy by Wayne Campbell, who did it so that others might be able to share in this interesting information.

A Presentation From Joe Rohde

We went all over the Himalayas. Did research all over the place, but we chose a very specific style of architecture to evoke because when you look at these buildings, it's obvious that something is going on that is more than just the functional use of the building and that it's something you don't necessarily understand. And all of that is part of building a mood and building a story in the village that is consistent with what we're trying to move forward in the story of Expedition Everest.

The Yeti mandir (Hindu temple) is very…uh, it doesn't look like anything else—hopefully that makes people look at it—and then the whole mandir. In particular this structure, this mandir structure, which is about 35-feet tall and almost the entire exterior—the bronze work, the carved woodwork, everything you see—came from Nepal; was designed and built in Nepal for us by these traditional woodcraft guys. I'm sure their hearts would be broken to see how we distressed and aged it with, like, jackhammers and, you know, sandblasters to make it look old but it was designed and it was deliberately designed to incorporate all these images of the legend of the Yeti.

So, it is the Yeti as a fierce protector of the mountain. The Yeti as the destroyer of yaks. If you look at the thing, it's Yeti, Yeti, Yeti, Yeti, Yeti. Everywhere you look there's carvings of Yeti, so it is the Yeti mandir.

And then, within it, is the little inset kind of shrine area and that has a bronze of the Yeti. Once again, while this belief in the Yeti, this idea that the Yeti is the defender and protector of the mountain definitely exists. There's not a lot of actual visual design to go along with it and that has to do with really complicated kind of Tibetan…the way they think of things, in the sense that they believe in the Yeti as a real creature—he lives out there in the forest, he comes down, he eats my yak, he's a real animal—but sometimes he's also the divine protector of the mountain and we have a picture of the divine protector of the mountain over here. It doesn't look anything like the Yeti. But when the Yeti is protecting the mountain, he's this guy.

But we said, "No one will understand that." So we need to create images of the Yeti as the protector of the mountain, but use the real Yeti—use the "Yeti" Yeti. And once that they got that this was like a translation—that they needed to do this translation in visuals for us—then everybody was, "Oh, that'll be cool. We'll do that."

So they created this bronze for us of the physical Yeti, and he's in the traditional pose of any protector spirit with his one hand up holding this mountain in his hand and the other hand is out saying, "Stay out!" And he's got his little bent leg posture and he's got his little skeleton helper guys who—the whole meaning of a skeleton in Tibetan art is different than in our art form. It sort of represents the human spirit liberated from the limitations of the human body.

But these are the guardian protectors of the Yeti and he's on his mountain, and he's protecting the mountain and he's got his hand out. And then, of course, it's filled with all these little offerings to the Yeti, 'cause everybody's freaked out and they like, "Oh, my god. You know we've gotta put out little things in there or the Yeti's gonna go wild and tear apart the village." And then we did all this work to age down the wood around the opening to make it look like people have been doing this for, I don't know, a 100 years…500 years.

So, anyway, all of this building up a mood and a tone—a certain tone—and that's the mythic, mystical tone of the legend of the Yeti. The other place is The Yeti Museum. The Yeti Museum, basically, is another way of telling the story. This is like a very logical way of telling the story where you go through the museum and if you didn't pick up on any of that, now we have this very logical presentation. "This is the Himalayas…these different kinds of people live in the Himalayas…some of 'em live like this…some of 'em live like that…they live all over the place…they all have this legend of the Yeti…here's what all that stuff looks like. And then all these Western people came to the Himalayas and they looked, too, and they saw stuff that they thought looked like the Yeti and it looks like this. And incidentally…" And then there's the made-up stuff like the lost expedition.

Then there's a whole thing about, incidentally, the Himalayas really are a place with real bio-diversity—tremendous bio-diversity—where new animals are discovered every year. We just discovered some for real. So it's a place where plausibly there could be a Yeti and just because there's really an animal doesn't always mean you see it. Here's how we find animals we don't always see, including things like footprints. Here's a giant footprint. You know, on and on and on and on and on until you get to, you know, "The Yeti is real. You should beware. Blah, blah, blah."

And, of course, then there's the room where the proprietors of Himalayan Escapes—which I find to be a humorous name for a travel company where you end up escaping from the Yeti—basically disavow all that.

Finally on the ride, you see the Yeti, guardian of the mountain, as real as we could make him be, and it is sort of both a revelation that the Yeti is real—that's kind of a reward and it is kind of the end of your whatever you want to call it, your mythic adventure that's returning you back to the world of humanity—and you're back to humanity almost like it was a dream right? Like it almost didn't happen, just like a fairy tale.

The other challenge that we set before us was making the Yeti real; making a Yeti that could both seem real and be this other Yeti—the guardian of the mountain Yeti. So we did, in fact, blend both of those ideas into making our Yeti. Most people in the Himalayas believe the Yeti is real. It is not like Big Foot.

It is not something that like six rednecks in a bar think is real…and everybody else thinks they're crazy. That is not the Yeti. When you go to the Himalayas, it's really hard to find people who don't think the Yeti is either real right now or was real a few years ago. The Yeti is real to these people.

And then there's that other subset of the "The Yeti is also the defender/protector thing" and that comes and goes with the environment that surrounds it. So we wanted to blend both those things and try to make our Yeti as real as possible and one of the things we did was talk to real Sherpas about the Yeti.

Have you seen this skull—not skull—this, uh, thing that looks like half of a football covered in hair? Okay, that is in a monastery in the Himalayas. We got to go look at it.

I mean clearly it is not the top of the head of a Yeti. It is, however, like 400 years old. Which I think raises a curious question, because it does precisely resemble the top of the head of any of the large great apes, all of which have a massive block of muscle on top of their head called a sagittal crest. It's all muscle for their jaws, for crunching big heavy plant material.

So if it's 400 years ago and you're a Sherpa…and you live up in the Himalayas…and you think there's something like a Yeti…and you think it looks like a giant ape, but you've never seen a giant ape—you have no magazines…no TV…no Discovery Channel…no National Geographic…no encyclopedias—what leads you to imagine, as absolutely everyone does everywhere you go, that the Yeti has this great big thing on top of his head?

And that his fur is long and red and drags on the ground like an orangutan and that, when he throws rocks—and he throws 'em really hard and really fast—he throws them like this.

Has anybody ever seen like monkeys throw poop at the zoo? You know? Watch 'em next time 'cause that's exactly what they do. They throw like that. All of those details are bizarrely precise and accurate to a big primate; just not a primate that anyone has ever seen.

So there is something real somewhere in the background of the myth of the Yeti. And then there's all the other stuff. The Yeti can turn invisible… you know, his feet are on backwards…he can shrink. Not likely to be real.

So we got all these interviews from people, we got all these stories, we had that aspect of the Yeti. And then we also did a bunch of scientific research, going, "Alright, alright. If there really was a Yeti, what might this Yeti really look like and how could we make a Yeti that would incorporate the descriptions but also incorporate the logic of a real animal that could really live there?"

And one of the animals that we looked at is this, 'cause it's obviously one of the creepiest animals in the world. This is a Szechuan golden snub-nosed monkey. They're very, very rare. They used to not be rare at all, they used to be all over the place; but now, of course thanks to us, they're rare.

And they, obviously, they live in a very cold area; an area where it snows in the winter. And unlike many animals, they don't migrate down the mountain to a warm place. They stay in the snow all winter and they've adapted to this cold weather environment.

For example, they don't have any nasal tissue because it would just freeze off anyway. So they have this great kinda Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera nose, which is perfect. And of course, they have big teeth and they're creepy and their face is blue, which looks cold, and they've got hair all over and they've got this big mane.

So we basically took this monkey—the idea of this monkey—and we make it bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger and we took some ape-like characteristics and we blended them together to get our Yeti. So if you look at our Yeti and think of this monkey you'll see all kinds of interesting parallels between our Yeti and this monkey, which we just sort of blended together to get something that you could believe would be real.

Now they don't believe that the Yeti is white. That's a Western thing that comes from the snowman thing, the Abominable Snowman. Everyone thought, "Oh, snowman, like a snowman. You know, we'll make him be white." You know, not very logical, 'cause there's nothing to eat up where the snow is. So you can't live up there. You can only go up there. Like we go skiing, you know. I know you probably don't go skiing; there's not many snowy mountains nearby (in Orlando, Florida). But you can go skiing and you can go up into the mountains but, you know, it's not naturally the place where a lot of people stay, or a lot of animals live and the Yeti doesn't either. He lives in the jungle.

They say that the Yeti can become invisible. Well if he's a biological creature he can't possibly become invisible because he can't. But he could be invisible if he was camouflaged and so we made our Yeti's fur exactly the same color and texture as these incredibly dense festoons of Spanish moss that hang in all these Himalayan forests. So if our Yeti was in that forest, standing still, he would be invisible.

OK. Here's exactly what I think: There's too much evidence for some kind of real creature for there to be no real creature behind the legend of the Yeti. However, I don't believe that that creature lives where these people now live. All the people who tell the story of the Yeti migrated to where they now live from Western China, which is a very different kind of habitat and environment.

The Yeti—if there's only one known animal that could be the source of the legend of the Yeti, it's a giant primate…gigantopithecus…that used to live in the exact same area where the giant panda now lives today. And you know, the giant panda is a pre-historic animal, it just happens to be one that's still alive. If the panda was extinct and people said they saw pandas, we'd be treating that like the Yeti. But we see them. But they're black and white and they're dumb as a rock. [laughter]

If you lived in exactly the same place as the giant panda and you were an intelligent primate it's entirely possible that you could still be there and nobody would know you were there. But the point is that these people took these reports and they left town and they migrated into Tibet and across the Himalayas where that animal does not exist.

So…they have to attach that legend to the only living big, scary animal they can find, which is a bear. Big bears. And bears have their own oral tradition, just like Native Americans, of being like a man and having human qualities and blah, blah, blah.

So the legend of the Yeti, in my opinion, is a fusion of these two oral traditions because the people moved away from the place where it used to be demonstrably true—you could point into the forest and say, "It lives in there," and it became a story. As you move away, it becomes more abstracted. So I think it is something real, somewhere in the background, that has migrated and mutated into a series of legends, some of which are very obviously fairy tale legends. And I guess that's it, right?



  1. By CJ Brown

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article featuring Imagineer Joe Rohde and Expedition Everest (obviously what was successful about it influenced the updating of Disneyland's Matterhorn).

    Although I'm disappointed with Bob Iger's recent comments regarding Expedition Everest (the power of Google will compel you to find it online), I will take time to compliment fantastic queue area and authentic theming .... and admit the audio animatronic failures do need to be dealt with (but don't fault Joe Rohde, blame those Team Disney Burbank bean-counters for not forking over the $!) 🤷*♂️

  2. Discuss this article on MousePad.