Millions of guests to Disney’s theme parks live vicariously through Joe Rohde.
The famed theme park designer and patriarch of Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom is alternately a student and a teacher, an academic and an artist, a tourist and a documentarian.
He’s also the most vocal champion of the belief that theme parks — you know, places filled with popcorn, candy-coated churros, lowbrow stuff — are cultural institutions.
But as of this week, Rohde, 65, is officially retired after 40 years at Disney, where he’s led teams behind major projects at resorts and parks in Anaheim, Florida, Hawaii and Paris. He’s leaving at a time of huge disruption for the Walt Disney Co., including significant pandemic-forced layoffs, more than 400 of which hit Walt Disney Imagineering, the secretive arm in which designers like Rohde create theme park experiences. Where Imagineering goes next without him is a question for many and a worry for some.
“Joe’s legacy, it’s Animal Kingdom, and the art of Imagineering and communicating that art,” says Tom Morris, an Imagineer who retired in 2016 after about 35 years with Disney.
Rohde is the rarest of Imagineers, says Morris — he is to the Animal Kingdom what Walt Disney is to Disneyland; that is, a designer so closely associated with a park that he set a template for future generations. “He communicated both the process and the product appeal. I am concerned about who is going to take on that role now that Joe is gone.”
Over the course of his career, Rohde’s major projects hit on many of the aspects that define today’s theme parks and where they are headed.
Early in his career, Rohde touched on the immersive theater and playful roleplay that would become a part of lands such as Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Later, he led the development of all-enveloping worlds such as Pandora — The World of Avatar at Florida’s Animal Kingdom. The Rohde touch is most evident in how Pandora explores urgent issues such as environmental conservation, or how a high-priced Hawaii resort, Aulani, slyly doubles as a cultural heritage site. With Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998, Rohde changed Disney’s design approach.
In the words of his former boss Marty Sklar, once a speechwriter for Walt Disney, Rohde shifted the very direction of the modern theme park by more overtly grounding designs in art and the so-called “real” world rather than their silver-screen counterparts. With Rohde, said Sklar in a conversation a few months before his 2017 death, “You can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what is a built environment.”
Even his largest contribution to the Anaheim parks is a statement. Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! is specifically designed as a cartoon-like intrusion, a building meant to clash and call attention to its surroundings. It’s all an effort to heighten the concept that the modern American myth — the superhero film — is work that encroaches, with uplifting exaggeration, on real-world settings.
“He studies the projects he does with more depth than anyone I’ve worked with,” Sklar said in a 2017 interview. “When you’re on a team that Joe leads, there’s the expectation that you are going to do your very best work.”
Sklar, who oversaw Imagineering for decades, used to say that no Imagineer should ever aspire to be well known. The parks, the vision of Walt Disney, belong solely to Disney. Yet as much as there is a Walt era, a Michael Eisner era and a Bob Iger era, there is also a Rohde era.
‘He’s up for it’
To understand why Rohde’s theme park designs resonate — why these large-scale, corporate-funded projects with teams in the hundreds felt personal — we must know Rohde’s character and how he not only led but persuaded everyone from coworkers to strangers to skeptics to see the world from his point of view.
Let’s cut to November of last year, a few weeks before our awareness of the pandemic that would uproot so many of our lives, not to mention completely reshape the theme park industry. Rohde was leading a group of friends and peers on a trip through Bhutan. Among those with him was Amy Jupiter, a key designer on number of Disney’s most popular rides, including those associated with Rohde such as Mission: Breakout! and Walt Disney World’s 3-D simulator Avatar Flight of Passage.
Jupiter was … trepidatious. “I think before that experience the most I had done was an overnight in Central Park for a bike marathon,” Jupiter says. “That was the most outdoor activity this city kid could have.”
And she was definitely not having some routes Rohde was leading the group on.
“There’s something about driving on a road in Bhutan that definitely doesn’t look like a road. I was looking at him: ‘I am super angry with you! What did you get me into?’ And he’ll go, ‘Let’s sing!’ And the whole bus starts singing. He’s just a joyous guy. He’s up for it. He’s just up for it.”
Jupiter says that whether working with Rohde, or stepping into one of his designs, the vibe is the same: “OK, let’s do this.”
To understand Rohde’s work is to know his goal is to make you, the guest, feel like an explorer. His projects are grounded in a bold but simple belief that we don’t go to a Disney theme park to escape our world; we go to make sense of it.
“I do believe that these spaces satisfy extremely primal basic human needs for complex, colorful, image-filled environments,” Rohde says. “This is a thing. People need to be in places like that. The stripped-down functional purposefulness of the general environment in which we live does not satisfy our needs, and it is made worse by the fact that it is an arena for visual competition — firm after firm, business after business, building after building. This is not what we crave.”
Imagineers — including the originals — have come and gone, and Disney parks have endured, having survived multiple eras of expansion and downsizing. Rohde himself would likely tell you that where Disney parks will head without him is the wrong question.
Theme parks, after all, are living entities that build upon the work of prior generations, spaces that reflect the stories we’ve told in the past and will tell in the future. So while he says his now-former bosses have extended a hand for him to come and visit, he doesn’t think he’ll often take them up on it. Indeed, he’s leaving his Altadena home in Southern California to relocate further north and explore other passions.
“It does not help people grow to have a shadow in the background,” Rohde says. “The best thing that can happen is people go forward and they grow and learn how to do this. That does mean they will make personal choices. That does mean these things evolve. They are not frozen in aspic. They don’t become shrines to something someone bought in 1998, which is already a very long time ago.
“As long as they retain the integrity of their innermost core motive, that’s what matters to me,” he continues. “I know I’m gonna miss this stuff. But I’m really excited about going out and doing things that won’t fall under this purview, that won’t happen this way.”
‘It will change’
At one point during a recent Zoom conversation, Rohde downplays his work. “A niche,” he says, noting that so much of it was a diversion from Disney’s usual projects.
Animal Kingdom, for instance, has a heavy message about conservation. Aulani in Hawaii explores the cultural history of the islands. Villages Nature at Disneyland Paris is an experiment in sustainable tourism. Heck, even Pandora — The World of Avatar is about the triumph of the environment and the horrors of an endangered species.
“I do wonder — I mean, that’s a niche — how it mutates in order to survive, once it’s not this person,” Rohde says, reflecting on his imprint and how it will evolve without him. “Not that I held it up with my bare hands, but the work we do is a feedback loop between the person doing it and the nature of the work. So I expect to see this stuff mutate as another generation of people engage it.
“It will change,” he continues. “But one of the things that is interesting about all of this is the degree to which this work demonstrates how serious the company can be.”
The nearly decade-long challenge of bringing Animal Kingdom to life has been well documented, be it the financial feasibility of constructing a 110-acre wildlife reserve or the legwork needed to simply show that Disney could approach the caretaking of so many animals with, well, seriousness. There were also heated discussions about the tone of Animal Kingdom — this isn’t a “Zootopia"-like world of talking cartoon animals, but one that grounds its settings in the influence of Africa and Asia and reflects humanitarian causes such as conservation and the dangers of poaching and commercialism.
It is North America’s most detailed theme park, one where realism tops fantasy. “I had established, well known Imagineers working on that project who were outraged at the idea of what we were doing,” Rohde says today.
“Not just realism, this politicized, gritty realism that’s about real-world stuff,” Rohde says of the project’s contrast to the romanticized New Orleans Square of Disneyland or World Showcase of Florida’s Epcot. “It was, ‘What are you doing? That’s not what we do.’ In a sense they’re right. We were trying to extend a paradigm, and you can’t do that because you want to do it or you think it’s a good idea. You have to prove it.”
Animal Kingdom was a natural place to experiment with such an approach. The stars, of course, are the animals that lend an air of unpredictability to the experience.
But so too does the very design, which almost immediately offers guests diverging paths and invites attendees to not sit back and be entertained but to lean in and explore. “You can choose to ignore detail and just come to ride two rides,” as Rohde himself said on a media tour of Pandora before its 2017 opening. But if you do, he added, “you’re wasting your time at Animal Kingdom. Please pay attention to detail.”
Those who pay attention are constantly rewarded. See: Expedition Everest, one of Walt Disney World’s most popular attractions, in which the coaster is modeled after a steam train. Since putting a steam engine on a roller coaster isn’t advised, there’s some below-track trickery to create the steam effect. And since steam trains don’t clickety-clack in the same way as a coaster, the ride’s anti-rollback system had to be rethought to more accurately mimic a train.
Here’s how deep Kim Irvine’s connections are to Disneyland: About three years before she started working for Walt Disney Imagineering, the creative arm of the company responsible for theme park experiences, the then-15-year-old simply wanted her mother to stop embarrassing her.
Most guests likely wouldn’t notice if such details were absent, but it’s an extension of the original Disneyland idea that if guests are to have a starring role, the sense that this is theater should disappear. Perhaps authenticity is an aid in such an endeavor? As Rohde says, “What happens when we switch from fantasy to vérité?”
“It’s about freeing you,” Jupiter says.
“His methodology, his parks, are all about them being a gateway to your adventure,” she adds, noting he taught his teams to use stories and brands as familiar entry points to “spiral out” onto larger themes rather than to “spiral in” on recognizable characters and movie scenes. “People confuse plot in a theme park to the plot of a story or a backstory. This is your world. This is your plot.”
It’s a belief that theme parks are more than rides or characters or so-called “intellectual property.” We like all those things, of course, but the difference between product and themed entertainment is when the latter is used as a vehicle to deliver something grander, to use design to show something familiar, but then to lead us to a place of curiosity.
Consider a talk Rohde gave last year at the Getty Museum.
Alongside representations of Disney park staples, Rohde included images of work by artists such as Thomas Moran, considered one of America’s foremost landscape painters, and Caspar David Friedrich, a leader of the German Romantic movement, in his presentation. A thesis began to emerge as the artworks intermixed with pictures of thrill rides such as Disneyland’s runaway mine train and Walt Disney World’s Expedition Everest. To understand the reason so many pilgrimage to a place such as Disneyland or Walt Disney World, Rohde posited, we need to rethink how we talk about theme parks.
“They are kind of like walking into those great landscape paintings of the 19th century,” Rohde said of the parks as depictions of Moran’s paintings appeared. “They are very consciously modeled on their sensibilities, sometimes so directly so that they are almost direct quotations. Most of you probably recognize Big Thunder Mountain. Thomas Moran.”
Heady words for someone who had no dreams of working for Disney.
‘The edge of real’
In conversation, Rohde regularly punctuates a point he wants to make by ending a sentence with the declaration “this is a thing” or a variation such as “that is a thing.” While many an Imagineer has grown up idolizing the parks or even working at them though high school and college, for Rohde, Disney was not much of a thing.
“I was not that tuned into that,” he says. He spent a significant portion of his childhood in Hawaii, where his father worked as a cameraman, before his family moved closer to the film industry.
In his early 20s, Rohde taught in the theater department at the San Fernando’s Valley’s Chaminade College Preparatory, where his mother had also worked as a theater instructor. The father of one of his students happened to be a Disney executive, who recruited him to work for Imagineering. Rohde blew him off.
But realizing that Imagineering was closer to the film industry than his gig at Chaminade, he relented, starting in 1980 in the model shop, where he struggled, bouncing around various projects. Rohde was part of teams that worked on the Mexico Pavilion at Epcot and later the Michael Jackson-staring sci-fi 3-D film “Captain EO,” for which he helped devise the film’s original characters.
A bit of luck, as well as his love of theater and extravagant costumed parties, forever changed his career path. In the mid-1980s, in a Walt Disney World area that is now part of the shopping/dining center Disney Springs, the company was developing a nightclub-focused locale called Pleasure Island. The executive in charge, after visiting Rohde’s home, which is filled with masks, art and trinkets from his world travels, essentially gave Rohde his first major break.
The resulting project, the Adventurers Club, was ahead of its time, presciently predicting today’s all-encompassing theme park worlds populated with living characters, ongoing narratives and unexpected interactions. Filled with puppets and not-so-hidden rooms and goofy songs, the Adventurers Club was more or less immersive theater with tropical drinks, all dedicated to a love of exploration.
Try as he might — and he’s tried countless times — Rolly Crump just can’t quit Disney.
“It foreshadowed Animal Kingdom,” Rohde says. “Is that real real? Is that make-believe real? I can’t find the edge of real. Many of those artifacts were totally real. Some of what came out of people’s mouths was totally historical and real. Some was not.”
It’s important to note that Rohde was building upon a legacy. These concepts hearkened back to Walt-era Disneyland, when shops throughout Adventureland and New Orleans Square were celebrations of distant locales full of one-of-a-kind merchandise and props. What was different was how the Adventurers Club made the communal feel personal, and how it shifted Rohde’s thinking in how and why we’re drawn to themed environments.
“When people think of the Adventurers Club, everybody focuses on adventure — the artifacts, the spears, the carvings,” he says. “But really, thematically, emotionally, the Adventurers Club is all about ‘club.’ It’s all about coming to a place where you’re made to feel special. You’re being welcomed, and weirdly included and being recognized. It was the club of the Adventures Club that made it work, not the adventure. It could have been the Fishermans Club.”
This was a pivot from a passive to more active approach to entertainment, a tradition soon entrenched by Animal Kingdom and one that has extended to Universal’s the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, to Disney’s “Star Wars“-themed Galaxy’s Edge lands and to the experiential art of the interactive exhibition spaces created by the New Mexico-based Meow Wolf. It’s also, for those paying close attention, how Rohde views his daily life. Design shouldn’t flat-out mimic our world, but it should make it more ... fun.
Early in the pandemic, for instance, Rohde spent weeks re-imagining the cracks in the sidewalk outside his home, crafting fantastical worlds and asking social media followers to theorize who could live in them, what their history could be, and what it may be like to visit them. It was a creative exercise, but also a reminder, says Jupiter, to be present in the moment.
It was also a love letter, amid our current stay-at-home lifestyle, to expertly designed themed environments.
“These environments are needed,” Rohde says. “Not that they wouldn’t be needed if someone chose to do them to as urban design in the urban environment, but they tend to not. I think there is a profound feeling that you get from the sense of unity. Whether you believe in Disney or not, whether you sit in the theater with your arms crossed trying not to have this thing affect you, there is a story for you at some point in your life.”
And there, ultimately, is the key take-away from Rohde’s work at Disney and how it will live — and morph — without him. When Rohde talks about, say, landscape artists of the 19th century and how their work set a template for the modern theme park, he’s making a point.
Theme parks don’t exist in a vacuum; they transcend the brands that own them. They are part of our shared story. That is a thing.
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