When researching this week’s news from Walt Disney World, I held my breath in a near panic when I read the headlines proclaiming a shake-up at the top of Walt Disney Imagineering(WDI). But I thankfully exhaled when I read that Joe Rohde was staying right where he is, as the creative leader of Disney Animal Kingdom. But I can’t help but think how much better off Disney Parks would be if they moved Mr. Rohde further up the ladder.
Rohde came to WDI in 1980, and worked on Epcot’s Mexico pavilion and later Norway, probably the two most immersive pavilions in World Showcase. He also was part of the Captain E-O film. But his first truly high profile project was the creation of the now extinct Adventurer’s Club at Pleasure Island. Rohde’s amazingly creative and fun design made this club a fan favorite, and one Disney fans still pine away for years after its doors have closed.
But soon he would begin work on the project that would define his career and showcase his brilliance, Disney’s Animal Kingdom. It was Rohde who shepherded DAK from blue sky to rope drop. Not a bit of that park was built without Rohde’s input and his obsession with detail and story is the common thread that gives the park its aesthetic brilliance. Even in places where the top brass obviously pulled his budgets out from under him, Rohde insisted that they never skimp on those elements.
For instance, while you may not love the carnival-style games found at Chester and Hester’s Dino-Rama, you can not deny that Rohde and his team made sure it was more than just midway games. With what little resources they had, Imagineers created a fun and engaging story and filled the area with more details than we can catalog here.
And if you wonder what Joe Rohde can do when budgets aren’t slashed take a look at Expedition Everest, the last truly original and immersive attraction built in the domestic parks. While other Imagineers have used story elements in building thrill rides, none have ever done it like Everest. Joe Rohde doesn’t just leave no stone unturned, he wants to find every stone, rock or pebble available to catalog or photograph them for possible use later in the project. If every attraction had the kind of detail Rohde’s have, we would be living within a renaissance period of Imagineering.
And I wouldn’t be at all surprised if years from now, after Mr. Rohde is long gone from the Disney offices, we start to learn that he never earned his rightful place at the head of Imagineering because he put creativity and story above synergy and blu-ray sales. Remember those days when that really was case at WED? Truth be told, they never actually left. They can be found at the Animal Kingdom.
by Dave McBride (twitter: @RadioHarambe)