Get me back to the real Everest - it’s not half as scary as Disney’s

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Stephen Venables rides Expedition Everest in Disney's Animal Kingdom at Walt Disney World


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Get me back to the real Everest, gasps Stephen Venables. It’s not half as scary as Disney’s.

Stephen Venables was the first Briton to climb Everest without oxygen. In 1988 he joined a four-man team to pioneer a new route up the Kangshung Face, the biggest wall on the world's highest peak. Seven weeks after setting foot on it, he reached the summit, alone.

So a trip with his 12-year-old son Edmond to the Disney version of the mountain in Florida should have been a walk in the park by comparison. Or so you would have thought...

Theme parks make my hackles rise. I don't have much time for cute cartoon animals, and as for the notion of a Disney Everest expedition, that just seemed a complete travesty of everything I held dear. But my 12-year-old son Edmond was very keen so I decided to bury cynical preconceptions and take a look at Walt Disney World in Florida. And, as it turned out, I had a wonderful time.

The new Everest ride was magnificent and far more terrifying than anything you ever have to do on a real mountain. But first a few impressions about the whole experience.

I hadn't realised just how huge Walt Disney World is - a veritable state within a state, with its four main theme parks, two water parks, numerous resorts and an entire purple-signposted motorway network covering an area twice the size of Manhattan Island.

Nor was I quite prepared for the dislocating incongruity of this make-believe world. We stayed at the flagship Animal Kingdom Lodge, where Maribou storks stood sentinel among giraffes and wildebeest outside our bedroom window.

The last time I saw Maribou storks they were picking over the refuse heaps in downtown Nairobi; here they decorate spotless parkland, which was pleasantly warm in January.
The other thing that bowled me over was the unfailing courtesy of the 'cast' - the 50,000 employees who keep the whole show running with such slick professionalism. Everyone, from the chambermaids to the brilliant acrobats in the Festival Of The Lion King, is cheerfully helpful and projects the same belief in the dream, totally unembarrassed by all that feel-good sentimentality. Like the magic wardrobe, the park gate is the portal to a parallel universe as dazzling as Narnia's.
Top priority for Edmond and me was to get thoroughly frightened, although at the Blizzard Beach water park we did chicken out of the 55mph Summit Plummet. However, we tried all the other water slides and, at Epcot, subjected ourselves to the incredible G-force of Mission Space.
What a thrill it was to stare out of the spaceship window at the great clouds of steam billowing round the gantry, towering vertically above you in the empty sky, then to feel that gigantic surge of power as eyes, lips and nostrils are pressed into the back of your skull and you are hurtled into outer space. Fantastic!

The shows were good, too. I even managed to overcome my cartoon phobia to enjoy Mickey's Philharmagic, which Edmond assured me was the best 3D big-screen show he had seen.
Also enjoyable was It's Tough To Be A Bug, in which the theatre is built into the roots of an enormous artificial tree and the digital insects hover right in front of your 3D spectacles with horrible reality.

The live performers were also impressive. I loved the dazzling, acrobatic kitsch of the Festival Of The Lion King.

Best of all was the highly trained avian cast of Flights Of Wonder, although Edmond found the bird trainer's patter a little cheesy and wasn't sure that he necessarily wanted to let a giant hornbill 'fly into his heart' - it could be very painful. But this was an ecological plug aimed probably at younger children.

Ditto the vignette of slashed-and-burned tropical rainforest on the Kali River Rapids, where an environmental message is slipped seamlessly into a hugely enjoyable water ride through lush greenery close to the tiger, gorilla, tapir, okapi and ring-tailed lemur enclosures.
The blending of real and fake scenery was superb and, as a climber, I have to confess that Disney granite looks and feels almost better than the real thing. Their karst limestone is pretty impressive, too.

In the Asian section of Animal Kingdom there are some wonderfully crumbly, creeper-strangled, decaying remains of ancient Hindu temples and a splendid lorry - one of those old Bedford trucks, every square inch brilliantly painted in gorgeous decorative panels, like the pages of a medieval manuscript - which you still see grinding their way up the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan.
A few paces take you 800 miles from Pakistan to Nepal - and the new Expedition Everest. Here the verisimilitude has been taken to new levels. Not on the mountain itself; spectacular as this 200ft high spire is, with its glinting turquoise icefall, it doesn't look much like Everest, which is actually a rather squat, blobby lump. No - the Disney Everest is sharp and pointy, because that's what people expect. But the approach to the mountain is lovingly authentic - here, as you queue, you really do feel that you could be in Nepal.

With Disney, theming is everything. The idea, even while people wait in line for their chosen ride, is to entertain them by drawing them into that particular world of makebelieve - in this case a mythical village called Serka Zong, where you pass from Norbu and Bob's booking office, through the various shops and the yeti museum, to the station to board your train on to the mountain.
The architecture is a hybrid of Kathmandu Hindu and high Himalayan Buddhist. There is a magnificent pagoda-shaped temple, beautifully carved fretwork windows, Tibetan-style flat roofs stacked high with firewood, crumbling plasterwork revealing handbaked bricks, a roadside barber shop, beautifully distressed, faded reproductions of religious paintings, torn and peeling from ochre plasterwork, and jazzily painted shop signs advertising Shangri La Tours and Gupta's Store.
There are messages from hippy travellers, turquoise and coral jewellery, Tibetan felt boots and gorgeous Chinese brocade ceremonial costumes. Crampons, ice axes, old oxygen bottles and chains of karabiners hang amid the cheap aluminium pots and kettles so familiar to anyone who has trekked in the Himalayas.

The ubiquitous blue plastic storage barrels so loved by Himalayan climbers are also there, next to an old-fashioned, sit-up-and-beg Indian bicycle. Even the safety notice, warning tactfully that the seats and safety bars may prohibit 'guests of certain body shapes or sizes' - and there are plenty of them at Walt Disney World - is styled on standard Everest national park enamelled noticeboards, complete with rusting screw holes.

A couple of days after our visit I spoke to Joe Rohde, creative executive of Walt Disney Imagineering - the man responsible for all this authentic detail. It turned out that he has been going to the Himalayas since 1989. He told me how his props buyer spent three months in Kathmandu, selecting, buying and commissioning special sculptures.

He enthused about his own visits to remote areas, about 'the highly ritualised architecture' and 'the idea of sacred landscapes-He reminded me about the vertical black, white and red stripes painted on Tibetan houses, symbolising underworld, sky and living world.

All that knowledge and research and meticulous attention to detail - right down to the dodgy electric wiring in Norbu and Bob's office --has resulted in a level of Himalayan authenticity not seen since Herge's Tintin In Tibet.

And, like Herge, Rohde has made the yeti the star of the show. He explained: 'We start out seeing the yeti as rumour, report and legend - something controlled by mankind - but then, as we journey up into the mountain, we see it for real, protecting the sacred landscape.'

I don't know how many of the punters, queueing for their blast of vicarious terror, are going to appreciate that subtle symbolism. Never mind, it's there, in all its meticulous glory, for those who want to find it.

And the ride into the mountain? It all starts very innocuously. The train looks rickety and quaint. Even though a heavy security bar is clamped over your lap, you are lulled into a sense of false security by its initial gentle trundle. Then, as you pass through a bamboo thicket, it does a couple of quick revs and spins, like Jeremy Clarkson idling half-heartedly with a new toy. It rumbles and ratchets up a steep bridge, past a waterfall tumbling into a chasm.

Then you plunge into a tunnel and all hell breaks loose. Icy spindrift blasts your face as you spin giddily past half-glimpsed snowfields, then lunge back into another rocky tunnel.

The train stops. Suddenly you are deafened by a hideous roar and you see, projected on to cavernous walls, the shadow of an immense apelike creature, ripping up track and beating its chest like King Kong. The train rumbles up another steep tunnel and you emerge, thankfully, into bright daylight - only to be confronted by twisted, mangled train tracks stopping dead in mid-air.
Faced with this impasse, you just know that things are about to get seriously nasty. And sure enough, after a brief pause, the train hurtles backwards, down into the darkness, spinning like some malevolent centrifuge, flinging its screaming human cargo from side to side.

As a mountaineer, I have spent years keeping a very tight control over my own destiny - going to potentially dangerous places, where I take my life in my own hands and am totally responsible for my own survival. Occasionally, at moments of crisis, that produces a little frisson of fear but nothing to compare with this blind, impotent terror - this total abdication of responsibility, where you just have to keep telling yourself that these people know what they are doing.

Which of course they do. Rollercoasters are extremely safe. But it still requires a huge act of faith to believe that, when you are hurtling backwards through the darkness.

A few moments later, you have to reactivate that faith as you emerge again from the tunnel, facing forwards this time, staring straight down an 80ft drop. That plummet finishes with a spiralling swerve back into another tunnel, where 'the most highly engineered audioanimatronics figure ever created by Walt Disney Imagineering' is waiting to make one final lunge at the train, leaving you scared witless and very apologetic for ever having dared to disturb the yeti's high mountain sanctuary.

It was a tremendous ride - and now I want to get back to climbing some nice safe, gentle, unfrightening, real mountains

from The Mail On Sunday, 12 Mar 2006, by Stephen Venables
Copyright © 2006 Associated New Media