Legendary Imagineer Joe Rohde Relects On His 40+ Years of Making Disney Magic
If you’ve been following along with MickeyBlog then you’ll know that a Disney legend – Imagineer Joe Rohde, officially retired after an incredible 40 years with The Walt Disney Company. His tenure started all the way back in 1980 when Rhode served as a model designer at EPCOT where he worked on sculptures for the Mexican Pavilion.
As Disney’s official fan club (D23) tells us, at that time Rhode admittedly new little about Disney or Imagineering but here we are 4-decades later where Rohde has played a pivotal role in bringing to life some of Disney’s most immersive environments. Rodhe is after all responsible for projects including Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain, Avatar Flight of Passage, and Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission BREAKOUT!
Rohde has also worked on Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Hawaii and was key in the development of all of Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge! He also helped create the Disney Conservation Fund which since its inception as allocated over $100 million to projects worldwide.
Rohde recently appeared on the D23 Inside Disney podcast where he spoke about his retirement, working as an Imagineer and so much more! As you can imagine Joe has a ton of fantastic insights and stories. Here’s a few noteworthy tidbits:
When asked why retire now, Joe said that not only did his retirement culminate perfectly with his 40 year Disney Anniversary and 65th birthday but he also felt that now was a good time in terms of projects to be able to walk away. He told D23, “I just thought this is the time to do it. If I don’t do it, it’ll be like another seven-year cycle, at which point I’ll likely be doddering out the door. I thought this was a really opportune time.”
There are lots of incredible stories about various “hats” Joe has worn during his time at Disney including his brief stint as the Dreamfinder an original EPCOT icon. So how did Joe come to appear as this “imaginative” character? He recalls, “I was doing a bunch of voiceovers for EPCOT back in the day, because we used to just have people do voiceover. [Laughs] I can’t even remember all of the bad accents that I did to be these [characters]. ”
At the suggestion of a Disney producer, Joe was asked to step into the shows of the Dreamfinder for an interactive video green screen experience. At the time he thought he would just do voiceover and an actor would play the role. However, before Joe knew it, he was in full costume. He remembers, ’I spent weeks and weeks in front of this green screen, putting on makeup with the big red beard… When you work as an Imagineer, these jobs come and go all the time. “
There is so much to Rohde’s legacy, but one of the things that Joe was particularly well known for was bringing culture and authenticity to projects like Aulani and Animal Kingdom and infusing his designs with a connection to nature. So what was it that drew Joe to these projects?
Joe starts with Animal Kingdom describing the task at hand saying, “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.” His solution? Design an environment that was focused on conservation, research and science and to go far afield to meet with experts to carefully craft a park that unlike the others wasn’t specifically based on Disney’s already existing intellectual property.
Having already been through that process with Animal Kingdom, when the time came to develop Aulani, Rhode already had a team in place that could work with those natives to Hawaii to incorporate their stories into the tiniest details on property. He said a lot of his role was learning “how to ask the questions and how to listen for the answers so that you could create something that was truly original and really coming from the culture, not coming from us looking at the culture.” At the core of the ethos of developing the project was the notion that when you say something is authentically Hawaiian, what makes it that way is that Hawaiians did it!
Joe is a bit of a Disney rock star and has quite that fan following. So what’s it like to meet others inspired by his work? Rohde said, “I’m very grateful that I would be the lucky guy who, over and over again, gets all these good feelings from people, which, in fact, I don’t entirely deserve any more than all the other Imagineers who have all done this work but are just less recognizable and have spent less time in front of a television camera. It’s a great privilege to have been the recipient of all this amazing good will.”
We’ve merely skimmed the surface of this extraordinary interview. You can check out the whole thing here – D23 Inside DisneyReaders are also encouraged to keep following along with MickeyBlog for the latest Walt Disney World news and updates.
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