Here’s Why Disney Will Miss Joe Rohde
On January 4th, 2021, an era ended at The Walt Disney Company. The last famous Imagineer, Joe Rohde, retired after a 41-year career.
In his absence, the average Disney fan would be hard-pressed to name another Imagineer. However, I’d like to think some could come up with Kim Irvine and/or Asa Kalama.
Meanwhile, Disney has done everything possible to elevate the reputation of Zach Riddley, whose Instagram feed has evolved into a must-follow on social media.
Still, I want to say something unequivocally. Disney will sorely miss Joe Rohde. Let me explain why.
Who Is Joe Rohde?
Even if you don’t know Rohde by name, you know him by appearance. He’s the Imagineer who always wears those oversized earrings.
Yes, decades of wearing that jewelry have caused his ear to droop alarmingly. So, it’s that guy.
However, that’s a glib way of remembering Rohde, arguably the most impactful Imagineer since the glory days of the 20th century.
Rohde had his hand in many high-profile projects over the years, starting with the construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
I’m not exaggerating when I state that Rohde is the closest thing to a father than Animal Kingdom could have.
In fact, he qualifies as the architect of that park every bit as much as Walt Disney does with Disneyland.
When then-CEO Michael Eisner arrived at Disney, he noticed that Imagineers and other cast members tended to remain quiet during meetings.
Rohde didn’t mind voicing his opinion, and that external behavior paid huge career dividends. Animal Kingdom evolved into his baby.
Along the way, Rohde emphasized the importance of staging, training a new generation of Imagineers on the point.
Staging requires that every piece on a theme park attraction must possess a purpose.
Perhaps the best example exists at Expedition Everest, where Rohde and his team traveled to Asia and returned with local antiquities that would fit the ride’s backstory.
You’ll notice this behavior throughout Animal Kingdom, where a cast member can explain the purpose of virtually everything you see at the park.
Rohde influenced future generations of Disney fans and cast members alike with his dedication to authenticity.
What Else Has Joe Rohde Done?
Obviously, someone who works as a high-level Imagineer for four decades will work on many projects.
With Rohde, we’ll focus on his two most notable recent projects, one of which isn’t at a theme park.
During the 1990s, Disney decided to expand its Disney Vacation Club (DVC) to other resort destinations.
The company built resorts at Vero Beach and Hilton during the mid-1990s but saved the most significant project for 15 years later.
In 2011, DVC opened Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa in Oahu, Hawaii. A friend of the site, PCDev, just vacationed there. So, you can see how it looks:
Suffice to say that the place embodies paradise with its breathtaking amenities.
However, what most guests notice when they visit isn’t just the décor. It’s also how Disney has built a resort respectful of local heritage.
Aulani qualifies as the opposite of a tourist trap. It’s an extension of Hawaiian culture, albeit with Disney character interactions and meals.
You won’t even find many Hidden Mickeys here, but you will find sandy beaches and relaxing pools, along with sublime architecture.
Many Imagineers would love to have one project on this level on their resumes, much less two.
For Rohde, his third iconic outing will probably count as his legacy. He worked with director James Cameron to bring the movie Avatar to life.
I mean that in a literal sense. Pandora – The World of Avatar has turned into a real place you can visit, not just an imaginary place from a movie.
Most impressively, Rohde led the construction on the Valley of Mo’ara, aka the Floating Mountains. It’s an architectural marvel causes park guests to stare.
Pandora completes Rohde’s vision for Animal Kingdom, a park with real and imaginary creatures.
What Is Joe Rohde Doing Now?
Late last year, Rohde announced that he would leave Disney, noting that most projects require several years of commitment.
Rohde felt that he no longer possessed the drive for another wave of Disney expansion.
We can all understand his philosophy here. After all, Disney announced Pandora – The World of Avatar in 2011. It wouldn’t open until 2017!
At 65 years old, the Imagineer wanted to work on other projects in his career. A Disney themed land, resort, or water park could have taken him past 70.
However, Rohde never stated he was ready to retire, just that he felt he had accomplished all he needed to do at Disney.
Simultaneously, many cast members left the company, which caused some to speculate about whether this decision belonged to Rohde.
We will probably never know for certain, but some will always believe that Disney’s new executive team pushed Rohde out.
Whether that’s true or not, the one thing we can say for sure is that Rohde stirred plenty of interest on the open market. He wasn’t unemployed for long.
Seriously, Rohde was out of a job for roughly six weeks, as his new company hired him on February 22nd.
What’s the former Imagineer’s new project? Rohde will “design and guide the overall experience journey for future astronauts, friends and family, and inspired fans alike.”
Yes, the ex-Disney employee has taken on the job of a lifetime. He will dramatically influence the shape of luxury space travel for Virgin Galactic!
You know how luxury star cruises look in every science fiction movie? Joe Rohde will determine that for future generations of humanity!
As far as dream jobs go, that one’s hard to top. It’s like he’s working on Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, only he’s doing it FOR REAL!
Why Is Joe Rohde in the News Again?
The Imagineer garnered headlines recently for an Instagram post he made, one that probably seems a bit passive-aggressive.
Here’s an extended snippet from a longer post.
View this post on Instagram
“Fun. In the business of entertainment, you will come across people who will say, “Why can’t it just be fun?”
This question is often actually an accusatory form of micro-aggression, and really means…” Why are you wasting so much time on intellectual BS and overbred aesthetic sensibility?”
But there is a logical answer. Fun is cheap. I can have fun in an inflatable pool in my backyard. I can have fun playing basketball by the garage. I can have fun watching videos of snarky cats. This fun costs very little. An inflatable pool costs 50 bucks or less and can be used many times.
A trip to a major entertainment venue like a Broadway play or Theme Park can cost many hundreds of dollars per visit, all in. So…are these places just plain fun?
Are they hundreds or thousands of times more fun than shooting silly string at each other on the porch? Probably not.
Therefore, fun cannot possibly be the motivating factor in the compulsive, repetitive, over-scale patronage of the theme park industry.”
Why Disney Will Miss Joe Rohde
This post, which I encourage you to read in full, demonstrates the vast experience and wisdom that Rohde possesses. It’s what makes him irreplaceable.
Yes, Rohde has taught other Imagineers how to build theme park attractions the right way.
However, few of them could provide such an articulate explanation to such a common refrain.
To wit, I’m an ardent proponent of fun attractions. I’m the one always saying that Alien Swirling Saucers is underrated!
With his reply, Rohde has backhandedly smacked me down for my ignorance.
Without the Toy Story theming, the attraction would work as a carnival ride, but it’s better thanks to the Little Green Men.
Rohde understands the counter to the recent conversation we had. Has Disney gotten too expensive?
The answer is no due to the extras that Imagineers like Rohde insist that attractions offer.
You’ll never find Tibetan antiquities at another theme park attraction, especially not a non-Disney locale. Few ride designers care that much about the little things.
For more than 40 years, Rohde strove for perfection, and he somehow achieved that goal more often than not.
Now, he could quickly point out the imperfections and compromises visible that only he can see, but that’s part of the point.
If Pandora isn’t perfect, it’s so close that ordinary people could never notice the difference.
Rohde’s passion for the Disney brand led the parks to unprecedented heights. That’s an irreplaceable contribution.
The question now becomes whether anyone else at Disney can step in to fill the void.
Feature Image: Disney