Altadenan Joe Rohde is an Imagineer – which means he designs attractions, hotels and theme parks for Disney. A few years after graduating from Occidental College, he started out as a model maker for Epcot back in 1980, joining a troupe of young artists and the old-timers who had worked on Disneyland and the opening of Walt Disney World. Joe’s painting skills – combined with a well-honed gift for theatrics and set design picked up from his drama-teacher mom and camera-operator dad – helped him move into the ranks of design executives; he oversaw the design and development of Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998 in the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida.
Animal Kingdom is unique among Disney parks in that it takes a realistic (for a theme park!) approach to its varied environments (Asia and Africa as well as “Dinoland” and “Camp Minnie-Mickey”) and stories (poaching, deforestation, overdevelopment, plus A Bug’s Life and The Lion King). The park’s main thesis is that humans love animals; it takes a strong conservation stance, and has been an integral part of Disney’s renewed commitment toward conservation.
Joe’s lifelong affinity for art, adventure and culture has led him on adventures both personal and professional — let’s just say his frequent flyer account is always topped up… way up. He’s been on lots of adventures (including one alongside Jeff Corwin, looking for the Abominable Snowman) and speaks on design all over the world. He’ll be at the Pacific Asia Museum, part of the evening Active Cultures series, on March 25th. We caught up with Joe fresh off a month of travel in India and Hawaii (research!) and before he jetted off to Paris (fun!) with his son. Who is also my son. True confessions: Joe Rohde is my husband. And I’m not bitter about not getting to go to India, Hawaii and Paris, really I’m not.
How did you get to be an Imagineer?
I was teaching in a high school and was approached by a Disney executive whose kids went to the school. He’d seen the stuff I was doing with the theater department and asked me to submit a resume to join the workforce designing Epcot. I don’t think I was very qualified at the time, but this executive had written “HIRE HIM” across my application.
What’s your favorite part of the job?
I like building things. There is no substitute for walking out onto a huge worksite and watching an idea that you first conceived years earlier rise into life. I like the hardhats and boots, the mud, the noise, the big machines, the smell of the welding torches… pretty much everything about it.
A clearly thought-out, well-articulated and fun idea that actually survives the long, arduous process of design and production and is still clear, well-articulated and fun when it’s up and running and entertaining people.
What are you proudest of?
Hard to say… each project is challenging enough, complicated enough and cool enough to be the best. Currently I am working on Aulani, our new Hawaiian resort and spa at Ko Olina on Oahu. I am very proud of how we have been able to collaborate with Hawaiian cultural leaders and bring a very deep and resonant level of Hawaiian culture to life through the art and activity of the resort. But it’s not open yet, so “proud” has to wait.
What are your guiding principles for design?
Story: We are storytellers. Design is really just a tool for bringing story to life. If you keep a constant eye on the narrative integrity of what you are trying to do and say with your work, it will resonate.
Depth: Depth ensures that people can come back again and again to a story and still find new richness and detail that they had not seen before. Depth makes the long and difficult effort to get things built worthwhile, because the work is meaningful.
Delight: You must enjoy this work. Emotions are embedded into the work, just as with any work of art. You don’t want to be building resorts and rides during your “Blue Period.”
What’s the best trip you’ve taken?
While we were designing Expedition Everest, the Himalayan-themed thrill attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, we were able to collaborate with Conservation International on a series of scientific expeditions into very remote parts of the Himalayas. That was cool—dropped off by helicopter in one of the most rugged parts of the Nepalese Himalayas, finding new species of animals and plants, fighting leeches, sleeping in ice water… hard to beat.
It seems like your job is pretty fun—what do you do for (more) fun?
I paint. I’m working on two series of paintings right now, influenced, I guess, by the work I’m doing in Hawaii. One series is a sort of deconstruction of the Gauguin cliché of the exotic and romantic island woman. These look a lot like Gauguin paintings until you look closer and notice the sly details. The other is a set of angry tikis (some Hawaiian, which are called ki‘i, and others from around Oceania). All the images are quite accurate to the real look of the real museum pieces, but they’re all juxtaposed against kitchsy tiki mugs and bottle openers and dashboard hula girls, and because of the facial expressions of the indigenous pieces, they look really outraged. They’re funny, but they do make you think.
What’s your favorite hometown hangout?
Eaton Canyon. We used to have a dog, Wylie, who liked to swim in the river there. I took a guy from Kenya there—a wildlife safari guide who grew up in the bush—and he was thrilled. Every snake to him was a terrifying new encounter, and he was very excited to see a deer—this is a guy who lives with cobras and elephants and rhinos.
Have you ever been to the Rose Parade?
As a matter of fact, I designed the Oxy float for their centennial in 1988. We were so tired that I slept through most of it, although I had great seats right at the corner of Orange Grove and Colorado… they must have been very comfortable! Now I like seeing the floats the night before—it’s like a happy zombie movie.