Joe Rohde is co-chair of the SATE 2012 Experience Design conference taking place at Disneyland Paris 19th-21st September. SATE is organized by the Themed Entertainment Association (TEA). The SATE 2012 theme is “Cultural Diversity: Obstacle or Opportunity?” This article was provided by Walt Disney Imagineering in March 2012 on the occasion of Joe’s being honored with the Buzz Price Thea Award for a Lifetime of Outstanding Achievements, by TEA.
At SATE 2012, Joe will speak about the creation of Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa.
Joe Rohde didn’t realize it then, but he began his career in theme park design as a kid. His father, a cameraman, would sneak him out of school to explore the sets of films like Hawaii, Planet of the Apesand Earthquake. His mother, a high school drama teacher, made sure that Joe’s artistic talents were put to good use as a set designer; she also cast him in such disparate roles on stage as King Arthur, Bill Sykes, Caliban and Poseidon. As the oldest of six kids, Joe learned to accept leadership, delegate responsibility, and manage chaos. He went to a liberal arts college, Occidental; while majoring in studio art he also fed his passion for history, drama, nature, creative writing, and theme parties. All in all, it was the perfect background for a visionary in the theme park industry.
Joe started at WED in 1980 thanks to Imagineer John Zovich, who admired Joe’s work as a high school art teacher and told him he ought to apply. Beginning as a model builder for EPCOT Center, Joe also painted sets for Fantasyland attractions and began to do concept work for projects like Captain EO in the mid-1980s. Joe was the designer for the Adventurers Club which opened with Pleasure Island at Walt Disney World Resort.
As the oldest of six kids, Joe learned to accept leadership, delegate responsibility, and manage chaos.
The Adventurers Club was also an incredibly cool-looking place that experimented with interactivity and guest involvement; living characters related to the guests in unscripted evenings of inventive merriment. When it opened in 1989, neither “interactivity,” nor “living character,” were phrases widely used in this industry. Though the club is now closed, a nineteen-year run is not bad for a theatrical improv performance. The Adventurers Club, with its new-style entertainment and artifact-filled rooms, reflected Joe’s predilection for not only thinking, but going “outside over there” to feed his, and our, imaginations.
Joe’s thirst for adventure took him on a climbing expedition in the Himalayas. He returned over the years on other trips “just to paint” – which coincidentally entailed hiking through forest fires, fording flooded rivers on horseback, and enduring hair-raising helicopter rides through cloud covered mountains. Joe had also begun another quest: leading a small, brave group of Imagineers charged with the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Once again, the design territory was new and unoccupied. Animals, advocacy, and conservation had never been addressed together as theme park subjects. The levels of authenticity required sent Joe and his team off to the far corners of Africa and Asia, connecting with animal and plant experts, as well as conservation advocates, to create compelling stories about the human love for, and relationship to, our living planet. Exemplifying this relationship is the Disney Worldwide Conservation Fund (DWCF), which Joe helped to spearhead, and was established when the park opened in 1998. Since 1995, DWCF has awarded nearly $18 million to support conservation programs in 111 countries.
When the Adventurers Club opened in 1989, neither “interactivity,” nor “living character,” were phrases widely used in this industry.
For 22 years, Joe has led the creative teams responsible for Animal Kingdom, including attractions like Asia, Expedition Everest, and the Wild Africa Trek. They are now laying the groundwork for a new Avatar attraction with Jim Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment. Joe is also further exploring the interweaving of ecology and human culture as the leader of an international group of designers for Les Villages Nature, a new resort on the Disney property in France.
Another quest: leading a small, brave group of Imagineers charged with the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
Having spent his childhood in Hawaii, Joe immediately leaped at the opportunity to share the complexity, intricacy and delicacy of Hawaiian arts and culture at Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa located on the Island of Oahu. Joe’s passion for history, storytelling, and art helped create a foundation for a project unique in all the world. Recently opened, it is the company’s first major resort not tied to existing park locations, as well as a celebration of Hawaii, where Hawaiian voices speak for themselves about Hawaiian ideas.
Adventure requires preparation, and Joe is a theorist who prepares for each design adventure with rigorous research and firm structural thinking. He speaks about story, design and theory around the world, for organizations like NASA, IAAPA, SIGGRAPH, TILE, AZAA, and TED. He is a member of the Explorer’s Club, was Occidental College’s alumnus of the year in 1998, holds an honorary PhD from DePaul University, and now, the Lifetime Achievement Award from TEA. Congratulations!
This article was originally published in the annual Thea Awards Program, by the Themed Entertainment Association. Learn more about the Thea Awards at this link.