11 Facts About Disney’s Joe Rohde

by | May 7, 2018 | Disney History, Disney Parks and Resorts, Lists and Trivia

Joe Rohde is the mad genius of Disney Imagineering. The creative mind behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Aulani, and more, Rohde has established himself as the modern face of Imagineering and the heir to Walt Disney’s belief in environmental storytelling. Rohde is so dedicated to the premise that every detail, no matter how small, serves to enhance the narrative he believes the park or Attraction is trying to tell. Not just an Imagineer, Rohde is an adventurer and world traveler with a probing intellect who uses his globe hopping and cultural studies to inform his work for Disney. A thorough study of his influence on the Disney parks would require an entire book, but here are a few highlights from his life and career.

1. Makiki, Hawai’i
Born in California, Rohde moved to Hawai’i (his parents original home) at the age of two. He lived in Makiki on the island of Honolulu. His father worked as a cameraman, working on films like Elvis’s “Blue Hawaii.” His mother was a high school drama teacher.

2. Los Angeles
His father’s work in film eventually led the family back to California and Hollywood. Rohde explored the back lots where his father worked. Being surrounded by the world of film made a lasting impact on his creative thought process.

3. Occidental College
Rohde attended Occidental College, even working on a kitchen crew to help finance his education.

4. High School Teacher
After graduating, Rohde became a high school teacher. He taught set design at Chaminade College Preparatory School in the San Fernando Valley. One of the school’s students was a Disney executive who approached Rohde about joining the Imagineering team.

5. Epcot
Rohde’s first creations for Disney came during the creation of Epcot. He was assigned the work of building models for the Mexico pavilion.

6. The Adventurer’s Club
Pleasure Island opened at Walt Disney World in 1989 and one of its most iconic experiences was the Adventurer’s Club restaurant. Rohde was the creative mind behind the Adventurer’s Club, which featured live and Audio-Animatronic entertainment in a themed atmosphere that resembled the old world explorers’ clubs.

7. Animal Kingdom
By far, Rohde’s biggest contribution to Disney parks came when he served as the lead designer for Animal Kingdom. To help pitch the idea of the park to then Disney chairman Michael Eisner, Rohde brought a live Bengal tiger to his presentation. While designing the Animal Kingdom lands of Africa and Asia, Rohde and others studied cities and villages in both continents, striving for authenticity in detail. Rohde has even shown images on his social media accounts of actual African and Asian villages interspersed with images of the villages in Animal Kingdom to see if people can tell the difference.

8. Aulani
In 2007, Disney announced their intention to build a resort in Hawai’i. Rohde served as one of the lead designers for the Disney Resort & Spa. Rohde’s attention to cultural detail can be seen throughout the resort. Even its logo, a curved arch, was drawn from the shape of a traditional Hawaiian canoe.

9. Pandora
Rohde was the creative mind behind Animal Kingdom’s Pandora, from the world of James Cameron’s 2009 film “Avatar.”

10. Western Mongolia
Though kept busy by his work for Disney, Rohde continues his trips around the world. In 2013, he traveled by horseback across the Altai Mountains in Western Mongolia to raise funds for the Snow Leopard Conservancy.

11. The Yeti
Based on Rohde’s social media posts: Yes, he is aware that the Expedition Everest yeti needs to be fixed, and no, he isn’t certain when it will happen.