The Yeti -- better-known as the Abominable Snowman -- is getting a boost that Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster can only dream about --- status as the first legendary creature among the real-life menagerie at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Disney's biggest ride yet, "Expedition Everest," a 20-story, white-knuckle roller coaster spin officially opens April 7 -- and those who ardently believe in the possibility of unicorns and other mythic creatures are happy to announce that the $100 million attraction won't be located in Fantasyland, but in a spot that Disney World created to honor lions, tigers and other exotic animals.
"In the last few years, we've proven the existence of so many creatures thought to be mythic that it really opens up possibilities for the public to take the Yeti seriously," said Loren Coleman, co-author of "The Field Guide to Bigfoot and Other Mystery Primates."
While Disney -- the parent company of ABC News -- isn't officially endorsing the existence of the Yeti, the fabled beast has an honored spot that goes back centuries as a protector of the Himalayas against unwelcome intruders, and that fits Animal Kingdom's spirit as a sanctuary, said Joe Rohde, Walt Disney Imagineering executive designer.
"The Yeti's legend is very real, and very important in understanding the history and culture of the people," said Rohde, who has led several expeditions to Nepal -- spending weeks at the foot of Everest -- to build an ancient Himalayan village in the Orlando park.
Rohde's team created what is now Florida's tallest peak, sculpted from 1,800 tons of steel, covering more than six acres. More than 8,000 authentic artifacts that document the ancient culture were imported for a museum that tracks the Yeti through ancient tapestries and modern works, like Coleman's new book. And the team planted more than 900 bamboo plants and 10 species of trees to enhance the massive ride.
Still, "Expedition Everest" is first and foremost a thrill ride. Disney guests board a runaway train from Serka Zong village that pushes through the mountains issuing faint warnings about a great, apelike beast as it plunges through an 80-foot fall.
'It's Not Unlike Real Yeti Sightings'
But unlike any other roller coaster, tracks ripped to shreds force the ride to an abrupt hault. Then, backward you plunge along a new course as the great Yeti, a mere shadow at first, takes over the ride. And before you step off, you'll whiz by a mammoth-size replica of the beast.
"It's not unlike real Yeti sightings that go back for centuries and continue through our times," Coleman said. "You can't go to the Himalayas without encountering the beast in the art and history of the region. And you don't have to look hard to find someone who's seen the creature."
While hardly a month goes by without a Bigfoot sighting in North America -- and the Loch Ness Monster still draws tourists to Scotland -- the Yeti is much more engrained in Nepalese legend.
Tales of the Abominable Snowman first appeared in the West as far back as 1925, when Greek photographer N.A. Tombazi snapped some shots of a creature on the lower slopes of the Himalayas.
Curious tracks were later found by British expeditions lead by Eric Shipton and Michael Ward in the early 1950s. Each track was 13 inches wide and some 18 inches long, and could not be identified by scientists.
Even on Sir Edmund Hillary's trek up Mount Everest in 1953, some giant footprints were found along the way. Though in his travels, Hillary reported no convincing proof of the Yeti's existence.
While Disney's Animal Kingdom has long claimed to honor an array of beasts "from dinos to rhinos," the Yeti will be the first creature that -- up to now, at least -- exists more in cultural history than reality.
Back in 1978, Disneyland added a yellow-eyed, 7-foot Abominable Snowman to its Matterhorn Bobsled trip in California. But seeing the creature in the Animal Kingdom, alongside real wildlife, is a major boost to Coleman and other cryptozoologists, who one day hope to prove its existence.
"It really makes people think about a legend," Coleman said. "And whatever reality exists behind that legend."