• Olivia Ujlaki

The Legacy of Joe Rohde

Updated: Apr 16


The earring. The genuine smile. The steampunk Mickey ears. He speaks of his adventure in far-off lands. You see the passion in his eyes. He’s the man, the myth, the legend. He’s Joe Rohde. And after 40 years of making magic, he’s retiring.


I was initially shocked to hear this news but set within the context of a pandemic, it makes sense. Rohde said in his announcement on Instagram, “40 years is a long time, and this strange quiet time seems like a great opportunity to slip away without too much disruption.”


The man is tired, and it’s not hard to see why; he’s worked on some of the coolest projects at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) since he started at age 25. He was hired as a model designer and scenic painter, then became an attraction designer, lead designer, and finally rose to take his place as Senior Vice President of Creative at WDI.


Through these positions, he has worked on the Mexico and Norway Pavilions in World Showcase, Captain EO, Animal Kingdom, Disneyland Paris’s shopping and dining district, the Aulani Resort in Hawaii, Guardians of the Galaxy- Mission: Breakout!, and most recently, Pandora- The World of Avatar.


He has also contributed in other meaningful ways. His likeness was used for the character Harrison Hightower III on Tower of Terror in Toyko Disney Sea, and he voices Alexander Graham Bell in The American Adventure at EPCOT.


I would argue that his work is as influential as Walt’s Nine Old Men. Even the late Marty Sklar spoke highly of Rohde’s work to the Los Angeles Times. Sklar said that what makes Rohde special is the way he pushes boundaries. In his projects, you can’t tell what’s real and what’s not, and that is where he has found success.


Think about it this way: Rohde is the only Imagineer to have created an entire park. He combined his interests in art, culture, and nature to make a completely different theme park: Animal Kingdom. Like the other parks, DAK is made of stories in its lands, attractions, and design. What’s different is that these stories reflect Rohde’s real life adventures.


Rohde led a research team of Imagineers that spent six years researching and designing the Expedition Everest area. And some of the objects they found are featured in the Expedition Everest queue and Tiffin’s Restaurant. Ensuring that the structures in the park were authentic to their real-world counterparts was of utmost importance. So much so, that in a video for the Disney Parks blog, Rohde’s wife mistakenly thinks one of his personal photos of Nepal was Animal Kingdom!


The point of all of this is to say that while other parks are based on fictional content (aside from Epcot but that identity crisis is a story for another time) DAK is a park executed in realism. It’s not supposed to make you feel out of this world, but perfectly immersed in our world.


That is the legacy that Joe Rohde will leave on the Disney Parks; he reminds us that there is just as much beauty in our world, as all the worlds we escape to in stories, movies, and art.


And for that, he will be missed.


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