June 18, 2024

Joe Rohde Returns to Imagineering (UPDATED)

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Less than a week after the announcement that he's being honored as a Disney Legend, the legendary Joe Rohde has announced his return to Walt Disney Imagineering in some capacity. This post shares the news




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Less than a week after the announcement that he’s being honored as a Disney Legend, the legendary Joe Rohde has announced his return to Walt Disney Imagineering in some capacity. This post shares the news and why we’re so excited for this development. (Updated March 25, 2025 at 1:15 p.m. Eastern.)

In the wise words of Rafiki, “The King Has Returned.” Joe Rohde broke the news himself on Instagram, with a video of him walking up to the front doors of Walt Disney Imagineering’s headquarters in Glendale, California. Rohde wrote: “Do a bit of work at the old farm.” Here’s the video so you can enjoy the goosebumps moment for yourself:

 

View this post on Instagram

 

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde)

Turning to commentary, we’ll start with the obvious. Wow was this satisfying to watch. Even though I suspected this would happen, I still didn’t quite believe it. And seeing it is another story entirely. I’ll admit that I watched this little loop about a dozen times for the dopamine hit, and then a dozen more to see if there are any little clues in Rohde’s reflection or anything.

This makes me more confident in the direction of Disney than I have been in a while–and I’ve been skewing towards optimism since late 2022! Given that we already know that Animal Kingdom is on the precipice of the park’s biggest expansion since (at least) Pandora – World of Avatar, it is so good to have Rohde back in the building.

On another note, I’m very pleased to see Rohde announce this himself and it not come as part of a polished press release from Disney. I know that could end up being a distinction without a difference, but it seems like there have been a few instances of Disney bringing back ex-Imagineers to “consult” on projects…when in reality, what they’re doing is more akin to buying a new non-disclosure/disparagement agreement. (See Tony Baxter.)

Call me foolish, but I don’t think Rohde would take the initiative of posting this himself if he were simply being bought off. I think there’s there there to this. (Say that ten times fast.) This isn’t the same as a Disney press release announcing Animal Kingdom expansion that breaks the “no pants rule” and the company attaching Rohde’s name to it in an attempt to indirectly invalidate the “no pants rule.”

With that said, and before we get carried away with excitement, it is important to note that the extent to which Rohde is returning is presently unclear. Doing “a bit of work at the old farm” could mean any number of things. It could mean he’s milking a cow for a day (having lunch with old colleagues) or it could mean that he’s taking over as chief animal technician (lead on Tropical Americas). Or a number of things in between.

My guess is it’s that last one. Rohde is a smart cookie; he wouldn’t post something ambiguous that he knows is going to break the Disney internet if it’s misleading. That would break our collective hearts, and he knows it. Conversely, we also know that Tropical Americas is going to be Florida-led, which makes it unlikely that he’s in a key role. An active creative consultant position is more likely. (Even more likely is that he has major involvement with Pandora at Disneyland, given his experience and its location.)

Don’t be surprised if Disney doesn’t disclose further or full details just yet. Remember, the Animal Kingdom expansion announcement has not yet been made. While Rohde returning is absolutely colossal news for fans and the cat is mostly outta the bag when it comes to DAK development, that’s not official yet.

So Disney’s approach to this development might be to ignore, deflect or downplay. We might not know the full scope of Rohde’s employment until the Annual Shareholders Meeting, D23 Expo, or whenever Disney chooses to officially announce and unveil Animal Kingdom expansion.

UPDATE: Well, exactly that has happened as the Walt Disney Imagineering Instagram account has since shared the following: “Beginning this week, Imagineers have an opportunity to participate in a series of master class work sessions led by Joe Rohde. Following in the footsteps of many former Imagineers, Joe continues to mentor and share his years of storytelling knowledge with current Imagineers, contributing to the future of creativity at Walt Disney Imagineering.”

While that’s not nearly as exciting as Joe Rohde being back in a creative capacity, we’ll again remind you that Disney has not yet announced the specifics of the Tropical Americas expansion or that it’s about to begin. All of that was uncovered via new permits Imagineering filed with the South Florida Water Management District.

Perhaps this is a matter of believing what we want to believe, but we’re skeptical that Joe Rohde is back simply to teach classes. Our guess is that a splashier announcement is on the horizon, and there’s more to this story. At least, that’s our hope! On the other hand, it’s also possible that Disney scrambled to post the subsequent photo and clarification in order to adjust expectations, so fans like us didn’t get carried away with speculation and false hope.

Given that we literally just discussed this a few days ago, I don’t have anything else new to add. In case you missed it, below is what we said then, when we argued that Disney should bring Joe Rohde back–and not just as a Disney Legend…

With the return of Bruce Vaughn last year, we speculated that Bob Iger was working on rebuilding Imagineering. It’s worth remembering that Walt Disney Imagineering was hit really hard in 2020-2022. This started with actual layoffs, and continued with layoffs in disguise via WDI’s planned move from Glendale, California to Lake Nona, Florida. As you likely know, that move did not happen.

Our speculation has been that Bob Iger is gearing up for another development cycle and wants an ally at Imagineering. Iger and Vaughn worked together during the last big boom for the theme parks, so this would not be even a remotely far-fetched scenario. With the recent departure of Barbara Bouza, the President of Walt Disney Imagineering, this seemed even more plausible.

This all relates to Joe Rohde because he was one of the high-profile retirements during the dark days of Imagineering in 2020 that might have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes). Joe Rohde and Bob Weis quickly getting new jobs after leaving Disney suggests that those were “retirements.”

Fast-forward to 2024 and the environment is dramatically different. Chapek is out. The Lake Nona move is not happening. Disney is no longer in a holding pattern on new development. Vaughn and Iger are both back. Animal Kingdom is on the precipice of expansion. An Avatar experience of an undefined nature (perhaps Pandora?) is coming to Disneyland.

Heck, even Tom Staggs is once again working with Disney in a consulting capacity. (Rounding out the trio in the photos, James Cameron is still out there doing James Cameron things, like being a submersible expert…and also being named a Disney Legend. Hmmm.) It’s like 2014 all over again. Few could fathom Disney would be at this point back in the darkest depths of 2020 when Rohde “retired.”

The stage should be set for Joe Rohde to return to Disney. It’s not any one of these individual things, but the totality of them. Naming Rohde a Disney Legend was an inevitability, so it’s certainly not just that. But of course, honoring his storied career certainly doesn’t hurt–and is another example of good ole fashioned bridge rebuilding that has occurred during the second Iger regime.

(I will once again say that I think some of you who view Iger and Chapek as interchangeable “villains” truly underestimate just how much invisible damage Chapek inflicted during his reign of terror. There’s a reason so many people within the company cheered Chapek’s ouster and Iger’s return…and also back Bob in the proxy fight, for that matter.)

Designing and building theme parks is a highly collaborative endeavor, and they’re never the singular vision of any one person. It’s the intersection of art and commerce, with a bunch of different stakeholders (creative and otherwise) all having input. But to the extent that there has ever been a theme park auteur, it’s Rohde with Animal Kingdom.

He has been the guardian of Animal Kingdom and safeguarded the park and its original vision. By and large, Animal Kingdom still is today what old school EPCOT Center fans wish that park still was: thematically pure. There have been a couple of close calls over the years, but Rohde always managed to work his magic and make alien additions feel like perfect fits.

That’s the criticism when Pandora – World of Avatar was first announced, and it was absolutely scathing. Walt Disney World fans as a whole questioned a land about Blue Alien Sex Cats, and Animal Kingdom purists were livid that a supposedly inconsequential blockbuster movie would be added to their beloved zoological theme park.

And yet, Joe Rohde silenced the haters with Pandora. It’s not perfect, but it’s a better and more thematically coherent addition to Animal Kingdom than it has any right to be. Imagineering needs Joe Rohde to ensure the same for the upcoming Tropical Americas project (and beyond).

In our view, the key difference between Pandora and upcoming expansion is that Joe Rohde and his deft touch have since left Imagineering. This is why we’ve expressed skepticism about blue sky daydreaming for Animal Kingdom expansion over the last couple of years.

Honestly, the exact same announcement about Animal Kingdom getting Encanto or Indiana Jones could be made, but by Joe Rohde, and I’d felt much better about it. He’s one of the few modern Imagineers to have earned that trust. Rohde’s ability to world-build and thoughtfully integrate intellectual property where it otherwise might not belong was pretty incredible. He’d get the little details and placemaking right, ensuring that the stories Tropical America tells are not just extensions of movies, but befitting of Animal Kingdom.

This is precisely why Imagineering needs to bring Rohde back. He made Avatar work in Animal Kingdom, so he can certainly make Encanto and Indiana Jones work. These IPs are a cakewalk as compared to Avatar. I don’t doubt that there are other Imagineers who can weave them into Animal Kingdom tastefully, but no one can do it like him.

Rohde would likely return if he thinks his very valuable input would actually be heard and he has the chance to make a meaningful impact in helping to shape the future of Animal Kingdom in a major way. Now it’s up to Disney to pick up the phone, and bring Rohde up on stage the night before the Legends ceremony for a much more important presentation.

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YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of legendary Imagineer Joe Rohde returning to WDI in some capacity? Think this–and other things–are signs that Rohde will work on the Tropical Americas at Animal Kingdom or Pandora at Disneyland? Or is that simply wishful thinking on our part? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!




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