If you’re a fan of Walt Disney Imagineering, you’ve probably heard of Joe Rohde.
This legendary Imagineer has spent the last four decades making magic with the Walt Disney Company in the form of some seriously incredible projects. Today, Joe Rohde announced his retirement so we’re paying tribute by looking back at some of his greatest projects.
1. Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Joe Rohde’s true talent lies in his genius design skill. He is most famous, perhaps, for acting as lead designer on the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Disney World, leading the team that conceptualized, designed, and built the park.
Rohde helped to surmount the challenge of creating a park with such a strong wildlife conservation method through years of research with scientific communities, zoos, and indigenous communities. This research even ended up in expeditions such as Mission Himalayas to Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibetan Sichuan.
Rohde traveled with Conservation International to explore regions of the Himalayas where Tibetan oral traditions had preserved large biologically rich tracts of land. This trip was a major driver behind the theming and authenticity of Expedition Everest — another Rohde accomplishment.
Since the opening of Animal Kingdom, Rohde continued to be majorly involved with the park, including in the development of Pandora — World of Avatar in the late 2010s. Animal Kingdom is a constant reminder of Rohde’s design prowess. his care, and his dedication.
2. Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund
During the process of developing Animal Kingdom, Rohde actually spent some time to help develop something more directly charitable, the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund. On Earth Day in 1995, the DCF was established and awarded grants to 39 wildlife conservation projects.
Since then, the fund has allocated over 10 million dollars to hundreds of nonprofit organizations working in 115 countries, helped to protect more than 400 different species, and connected millions of kids and families with nature. Rohde was instrumental in the start of the fund, and it may not be what it is today without him.
Of the fund, Rohde said, “This personal call to action manifests itself in the Disney Conservation Fund. This is the mission that binds the park and the Fund. They’re not really two things, but two sides of the same thing.” He also called it “an honor and a joy” to work with the Fund since its inception.
3. Aulani, A Disney Resort & Spa
Rohde’s attention to detail continued with one of his other most famous projects. He was responsible for the creative design and content of Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa, at Ko Olina, O‘ahu, Hawai‘i. Did you know he was chosen for the project because he grew up in Hawaii? So neat!
During the conception of the hotel, Rohde worked with a large number of native Hawaiian thinkers, artists, and cultural experts to create a resort destination that accurately and responsibly paid homage to the culture. Thanks to Joe, Aulani has the world’s largest collection of indigenous Hawaiian contemporary art and it’s the only resort in all of the islands that makes the Hawaiian language a requirement for key Cast Members.
4. EPCOT’s Mexico Pavilion
Joe’s recent projects aren’t his only good ones. In fact, we’re still experiencing the greatness of Rohde’s earliest project today. Rohde was initially hired as a model designer and scenic painter for EPCOT in 1980 and spent much of his time working on the Mexico Pavilion.
Rohde has said that he worked on the sculptural surface of the pyramid inside the Mexico Pavilion, as well as other sculptural work on the original ride, El Río del Tiempo (The River of Time). This attraction closed in 2007 to make way for Gran Fiesta Tour, but Rohde’s work remains.
5. Fantasyland Refurbishment in Disneyland
And, Rohde’s projects weren’t limited to Disney World either. In 1983, Disneyland’s Fantasyland underwent the “New Fantasyland” refurbishment and Rohde worked on the team of designers tasked with the facelift.
This refurbishment took the land from its original Renaissance theming to the fantastical version of a Bavarian village that remains today.
6. Captain EO in EPCOT
This next one is a fan favorite when it comes to Rohde projects. Rohde worked as a designer on the Captain EO attraction in EPCOT. That’s right, right next to George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Michael Jackson.
In fact, you could even spot him in the Captain EO pre-show! He’s shown with several other Imagineers working on concepts for the attraction. He doesn’t have his earring yet so he’s hard to spot, but you can still look for his mustache.
7. EPCOT’s Norway Pavilion
Did you know the Mexico Pavilion wasn’t even the only one Rohde worked on? He also helped with the Norway Pavilion during its development in the mid to late 1980s.
The pavilion features many intricate nods to Norwegian culture. IMO, you can really see how work like this helped to build Rohde into the cultural force that was capable of putting something like Animal Kingdom together.
8. Adventurer’s Club
Another of Rohde’s most personal projects was the Adventurer’s Club in Disney World’s Downtown Disney’s Pleasure Island. The theme for the nightclub was conceived and created by Joe Rohde and Imagineer Roger Cox.
The venue was styled after a private club for world travelers in 1937 where you could see artifacts and photos from different explorations. There was a show element featuring animatronics, puppets, and a performing cast who improvised with guests and performed shows.
Want to know where the idea for Adventurer’s Club was dreamed up? Look to Joe Rohde! The idea originated from a Sunday afternoon theme party called “The Last Days of the Raj” themed around 1930s adventuring — and Rohde was the host.
9. Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! in Disney California Adventure
And finally, Rohde acted as lead designer on the recent Guardians of the Galaxy — Mission: Breakout! retheme of Tower of Terror in Disney California Adventure. Most folks who’ve ridden this attraction love it and that’s partly due to Rohde’s storytelling prowess.
He worked alongside folks like Guardians of the Galaxy director James Gunn, composer Tyler Bates, and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. In the end, Rohde called the ride “an extension of the world that you’re familiar with,” and we have to say that’s exactly what it is.
Joe Rohde has certainly been a force for 40 years at the Disney company. Still, he leaves a legacy behind in people as much as he does projects. Now, those who Rohde mentored and trained can step up to the plate while Rohde keeps, in his words, “thinking about things, and doing things, and talking about things…” Because that’s kind of what he does.
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What are your favorite Joe Rohde projects? Tell us in the comments!