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Joe Rohde is a modern Imagineer whose creativity and adventurer’s spirit has completely reshaped the Walt Disney Company. Read more to learn about this amazing Disney Legend!
The heart of the Disney parks around the world is truly the amazing cast members who make the magic every day. Each and every job feeds into the greater experience and the magic that is Disney. From the imagineers to those who scoop our ice cream on Main Street, each cast member’s contribution adds just a little more whimsy and fantasy to the overall experience.
This series of articles will focus on highlighting Disney legends that have truly defined Disney. For me, (Jaelyn), understanding the history behind the parks and rides really deepens my appreciation and overall enjoyment of a Disney trip. This is the fourth article in the series. To read up on the Disney Legend Tony Baxter, click here. To read about Disney Legend Mary Blair, click here. The article about X. Atencio, Disney Legend, is linked here.
I hope that by sharing these legends’ stories with you, your next trip to the parks is even more meaningful! Most of the information gathered in these articles comes from D23 archives. This is a great place to start digging if you are interested in the history of Disney!
Joe Rohde was born in Sacramento, California on September 10, 1955. He spent much of his childhood in Hawaii. Rohde graduated from Chaminade College Preparatory School in 1973 where he was very involved in student drama and earned the honor of class Salutatorian. He received his BA of Fine Arts from Occidental College.
Joe started at the Walt Disney Company in 1980. His original role was as a model designer at EPCOT. He worked as a sculptor at the Mexico Pavilion and also as a designer for the Norway Pavilion in the early 1980s.
In 1983, Rohde worked on the refurbishment of the Fantasyland area of Disneyland in his first project in his home state of California. He went back to Florida in the mid-1980s, serving as a character developer for the Captain E-O attraction that debuted in 1986.
Rohde also starred as the Dreamfinder in the Dreamfinder School of Drama films for Imageworks in the Imagination Pavilion during this time period. These videos were part of an interactive video green screen experience in the original Imageworks area. To learn more about the history of Figment and the Dreamfinder, click here.
In response to his role as the Dreamfinder, Joe said,
“When you work as an Imagineer, these jobs come and go all of the time. You’re drawing illustrations or models or some participation in something all the time.”Joe Rohde from “Exclusive: Imagineer Joe Rohde Looks Back on 40 Years of Disney Magic” (D23)
The Birth of Adventurer’s Club
Joe Rohde’s first foray into world building and intense immersive design began with the development of Adventurers Club, a deeply themed nightclub located in the Pleasure Island section of the Walt Disney World resort.
The Adventurers Club’s design came from the idea of a private club for world travelers and explorers. Set in 1937, the walls were covered with images and artifacts from various explorations.
The Club featured a live cast of adventurers who performed shows and mingled with guests, along with animatronic and puppets. Embedded here is an Instagram post from Joe explaining his inspiration for this very popular club.
The Adventurers Club closed on September 27, 2008.
Animal Kingdom…The Crown Jewel
Perhaps Rohde’s biggest accomplishment was the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The entirety of Animal Kingdom is built upon the idea of authenticity. Rohde desired to create a park the represented the true natural details of the areas of the world in which the park represents. He wanted guests to have authentic experiences and a genuine understanding of the impacts of humans on nature and vise versa.
Joe intensely researched animals and nature in order to create the vision behind Animal Kingdom. He traveled to remote areas of the world to learn firsthand about the inspirations for the park.
In an interview with D23, he stated:
“It started with Animal Kingdom…Of course, no theme park had ever been based on animals, and the rulebook for how to do a theme park didn’t match up very well with animals. So it really started with the analysis of how could we ever take this system- the theme park system and everything that it represents- and what would we have to modify and change to get it to work with animals. And one of the the things that was going to have to happen was a very serious commitment to wildlife conservation. If you want to do this, there is no way to do it without making a serious commitment to education and conversation.
So that set some wheels in motion for a design culture that was really based on research, based on science, based on collaborating with people outside the Company who had knowledge and interests separate from our own. That made it possible to do a category of work that wasn’t really based on our own intellectual property, it is really based on ideas that come from the world.”
His passion is most intensely reflected in small details like the queue for Expedition Everest, one of his favorite parts of Animal Kingdom
Joe took a lead role in the creation of Pandora, an addition to Animal Kingdom surrounding the popular film Avatar. Though the area is inspired by intellectual property, Rohde took care to ensure that the purpose of this land focuses on the theme of conservation and connection to nature, which matches the general theme of Animal Kingdom itself.
“Rather than making this land about the movie and what happened to characters in the movie, we need to make it be about the world of the movie and what the world has to teach us about our world.”
Continued World-Building: Aulani
Because of Rohde’s proven track record for beautifully crafted and meaningful immersive design and his own Hawaiian background, he was a natural choice for designing another project for the Walt Disney Company: Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa located in Hawaii.
Every single details of the Aulani resort has meaning and purpose that connects to Hawaiian ideals and origins. In a 2014 interview with Disney Parks Blog, Rohde recounted,
“The resort was designed to reflect the sense of a Hawaiian valley opening out toward the ocean from highlands to lowlands. This organization has many connotations. One is the ahupua’a, the traditional organization of land that followed a watershed from the mountains to the sea and knitted all members of the community together in a working relationship and a functional sustainable relationship to the land
Another is a Hawaiian concept of time itself as flowing, like fresh water, from the past, which is in the mountains, to the future, which is in the sea.”
Joe Rohde, Disney Parks Blog Interview 6/27/2014
Out of this World Work: Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout
Rohde was also tasked with leading the retheme of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror in California. This was a challenging task, as the Disney Company wanted to keep the attraction’s general drop mechanics the same, but wanted to completely change the ride.
For Joe, he knew that the changes must come in two areas: overall theming and details...from the show building to the queue to the ride itself and also in emotion. The emotional experience necessary for a Guardians attraction is completely different than that of Tower of Terror but still had to exist in the same physical space with the same or similar ride mechanics.
Joe had to create an attraction that also appealed to a spectrum of guests, from those who had no idea about the Guardians franchise to its “super fans.” The attraction has to be understood and appreciated by people on both ends of that spectrum in order for it to be successful, and Rohde accomplished just that.
Retirement and Final Thoughts
Joe Rohde retired from the Walt Disney Company in early 2021. This Instagram post above reflects his personal feelings about retirement.
So much of what I respect and love about Joe Rohde is his passion and commitment to authenticity. His work reflects honesty and respect for its inspirations. The painstaking details create an experience for guests that transcends a day in a theme park and allows guests to connect to nature and the world in unexpected ways.
Joe Rohde has significantly changed the landscape for Disney. He is truly a Disney Legend that deserves celebration. What is your favorite contribution of Joe Rohde’s? What details do you always stop to explore? Comment below or on our Facebook page to continue the conversation.