Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde recently announced his retirement from The Walt Disney Company after over forty years of impeccable service. His last day with the company will be January 4th, 2021. It is hard to imagine that anyone would want to move on from such a coveted position. After all, I bet Disney Dollars to Joffery’s Donuts that it is the secret dream of most theme park fanatics to live the life of an Imagineer. Turns out, Rohde has his reason for retiring and some advice for budding Imagineers.

Rohde spoke out on Instagram, as well as with the Orlando Business Journal and Disney Parks Blog regarding his time at Walt Disney Imagineering.

This is Rohde In His Own Words.

Joe Rohde’s Noteworthy Projects

Believe it or not, Joe Rohde started as a model designer on EPCOT, keeping true to the ‘from the ground up’ tradition among Imagineers, such as Rolly Crump, who started by filling in the spots on 101 Dalmatians, and Tony Baxter, who started as an ice cream scooper at Disneyland. Later, he went on to oversee noteworthy projects such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom Park and Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa.

Throughout his forty years with The Walt Disney Company, Rohde built up quite the laundry list of accomplishments, including;

  • Adventurers Club on Pleasure Island
  • The American Adventure (Voice of Alexander Graham Bell)
  • Aulani
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • Captain EO (Character Designer)
  • Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain
  • Festival Disney at Disneyland Paris
  • Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission Breakout at Disney California Adventure
  • Imageworks (Dreamfinder in the Dreamfinder’s School of Drama films)
  • Mexico Pavilion in World Showcase at EPCOT (Painter)
  • Disneyland’s New Fantasyland 1983
  • Norway Pavilion in World Showcase at EPCOT
  • Pandora: The World of AVATAR at Disney’s Animal Kingdom
  • Tower of Terror at Tokyo DisneySea (Model for Harrison Hightower III)
  • Villages Nature at Disneyland Paris

Why Is Joe Rohde Retiring?

First things first, why in the world of Avatar is Joe Rohde retiring? Was there a falling out? Is upper management squeezing him out? Is COVID-19 to blame? Well, according to Rohde;

“It has been 40 years since I stepped foot in the door at age 25, not knowing anything about theme parks, Disney, or what it meant to work for a big company. Every day of my life since then has been a learning experience. I’m very glad to have had that opportunity, and proud of the work that has been done, not just by me, but by all my fellow Imagineers, and especially those who worked by my side over the decades. But 40 years is a long time, and this strange quiet time seems like a great opportunity to slip away without too much disruption. If I wait, I will once again be in the middle of another huge project and by the time that is done, I will be truly old. I’m not that old yet and there are things I want to do that cannot be done here. We encourage a culture of storytellers, not just amongst ourselves but among our guests and our fans, and because of this, there is a strong temptation to take this moment and turn it into a story. But what story? I think it’s a coming-of-age story. I started at Disney as a child, and I learned almost all my life lessons there, developed my confidence, recognized my skills and weaknesses, and went on to work with both… and do what could be done. I could stay forever, but that is like remaining in another kind of womb. I want to see what a grown man might be able to do on his own. This site here is not really for Disney. It’s for us. I imagine that there are many of you who I will be sad that I will no longer be a daily part of the Disney company, and there will be some of you who will drift away and no longer follow my ruminations because they feel they aren’t relevant. But I will still be here. And I will still be thinking about things, and doing things, and talking about things… Because that’s kind of what I do. I mentioned in my departure note and I will mention here again the tremendous debt that I owe to our guests and our fans who have been so generous. Working as an Imagineer has made me a good designer, but it is all of you who have made me a better person.”

Is Joe Rohde Ready To Pass The Torch?

It can’t be easy leaving behind years' worth of pavilions, lands, and worlds. Yet, every Imagineer knows that one day they must bid the parks adieu. Heck, even Walt delivered Roy instructions on how to handle EPCOT from his deathbed. Just because Rohde is choosing to retire, doesn’t mean that he is ready to pass the torch. Or is he? Rohde explains;

“You have to accept that all your projects move on to the hands of others. This is a very important thing. A design once it is done is meant to stand on its own, it either has the strength and powers to be its own thing, or it’s not a good design. So the idea that myself, or any creative person, needs to be there forever sustaining something, that just means it’s not good design. So I would say all the work I have done was purposefully done in a way that it should have continuity and participation, and that implies change, evolution, modification, participation of others and the ideas that may come in the future. That is what a good design is.”

What Makes A Good Imagineer?

There are an endless array of Imagineers waiting in the wings, anticipating Walt Disney Imagineering’s next move. So, what can they do to gain a competitive edge, now that the ‘earring of Imagineering’ is moving on? Rohde offered some advice for future storytellers;

  1. “You must be able to work in an ensemble. A lot of art forms are very singular. They are about an artist and an artist’s points of view. Ours is not. We work in an ensemble. The strength of our work comes from the work we all do together. No matter how good you are or how much of a genius you are, if you expect to be an Imagineer you have to be prepared to work with others and have the work of others feed into, improve, modify and change the work you are doing.
  2. You have to have this tremendous faith in the idea of stories, storytelling and the power of story. We don’t just build things, the things we build are only built so they can convey story.
  3. There is just something about pushing the edge of the envelope. You have to understand that it’s not good enough to meet expectations. The way our brains are designed is based on expectations. If all you do is meet expectations, then you are basically invisible. You have to exceed expectations or you don’t even show up on the map.”

What Is Next For Joe Rohde?

So, after forty years of endless adventures, what is waiting down the road for Rohde?

“I have a series of personal projects I’m interested in developing, some I can’t talk about yet. Some are personal artistic projects, some may turn into products. I’m also part of the Explorer’s Club, which ties into conservation work, expeditions and travel-related stuff, and that requires investments of time, like four to six weeks. So it’s going to be a mixture of things that are some personal adventure and personal creative projects, but it’s diversifying. This is the kind of thing there’s only so much time in life to pursue these things and now is the time for me.”

Wait… What About The Yeti?

Disney fans have long awaited the repair of the Expedition Everest: Legend of the Forbidden Mountain yeti. Meanwhile, Rohde’s next project, a second Disney Cruise Line private island in the Bahamas entitled Lighthouse Point, hangs in the hammock… umm… we mean… balance!

Unfortunately, Disney has yet to make any kind of announcement regarding either of these highly anticipated projects.

How To Keep In Touch with Rohde?

Joe Rohde is extremely active on social media, often posting photos from his recent adventures and frequently sharing throwbacks to his former projects and excursions. We strongly suggest giving him a “Follow” @ https://www.instagram.com/joerohde/?hl=en.

A Farewell

Joe Rohde’s retirement signifies the end of an era for The Walt Disney Company and the theme park industry, far and wide. His love and dedication to the story are akin to that of Walt Disney, himself.

While Rohde is still very much with us, as he hangs up his Mickey ears, I am reminded of Eric Sevareid’s CBS Evening News touching report on the death of Walt Disney;

“What Walt Disney seemed to know was that while there is very little grown-up in a child, there’s a lot of child in every grown-up. To a child, this weary world is brand new, gift-wrapped. And Disney tried to keep it that way for adults, escapism from reality. He probably did more to heal, or at least soothe, troubled human spirits than all the psychiatrists in the world. Today, people are saying we’ll never see his like again. We’d better.”

Walt Disney Imagineering needs Joe Rohdes, as the world needs Walt Disney. Our fingers are crossed that a second coming is on its way, for both of these extraordinary storytellers.