If you’re a fan of the Disney Parks, you may have heard of Joe Rohde. You may know him as “the guy with the earring”, but his formal title is Executive Designer and Vice President, Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering. Joe Rohde began his career at Disney working on Epcot’s World Showcase pavilions. He is responsible for projects such as Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Aulani, and the former Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island. He now serves as the global creative leader of the Marvel property. And yes, Joe Rohde is also known for his impressive collection of earrings which he sports in his left ear, all mostly souvenirs of his world travels. Due to his an impressive portfolio and strong presence in the Disney Parks, I thought it would be fun to rank my Top 5 favorite Joe Rohde Imagineering projects!
Disclaimer: My list is just that. Mine. This is all for fun, people! So here’s the deal. Comment with your top 5 favorites and let me know if you agree or if you disagree. Half the fun of being a fan is sharing and discussing why we love what we’re passionate about. So share your list and let’s talk! Finally, I’ve separated some of his projects in Animal Kingdom from the Animal Kingdom park itself. This is because they opened several years after the park and can be seen as projects separate from the park itself.
5. Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout!
Located at Disney California Adventure at the Disneyland Resort, Guardians of the Galaxy – Mission: Breakout! debuted in 2017. It also serves as the anchor of the Marvel-themed land coming to this park in 2020. Since Mission: Breakout! replaced the park’s former Twilight Zone Tower of Terror attraction, it’s also a free-fall ride… except now, guests are helping Rocket rescue the Guardians from the Collector, all to the rockin’ tunes from the film.
And that’s not all! During the Halloween season, Mission: Breakout! offers a different story line and soundtrack at night. It’s known as Guardians of the Galaxy – Monsters After Dark! This nighttime ride experience is a sequel to the standard ride experience as Groot has been left behind in the malfunctioning Collector’s fortress. To make things more interesting, monsters are also on the loose!
Why It’s My Pick: I picked this attraction because I think pretty much everyone thought it looked hideous and would fail. Am I right? Now, I still think it’s hideous, but it sure exceeded expectations! In true Rohde fashion, the experience begins in the queue. It’s layered with details and references and serves to immerse guests into the cosmic world of Guardians of the Galaxy. As a Guardians fan, it’s awesome the Guardians of the Galaxy cast actually shot the video and scenes you see on the ride. Finally, the music truly enhances the drop sequences and is just as integral to the ride experience as it is in the films. Plus, I have to give bonus points for Monsters After Dark. Joe Rohde and Imagineering went above and beyond in offering an additional ride experience that’s not forced, but a continuation of the story.
4. Expedition Everest
Located in the Asia area of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Expedition Everest – Legend of the Forbidden Mountain opened to guests in 2006 to rave reviews and is still one of the most popular and beloved attractions at Walt Disney World. For this coaster attraction, guests board a train traveling to the base of Mount Everest. Along the way, the legendary Yeti proves to be real and isn’t exactly thrilled with the presence of strangers. The coaster zips guests in and out of the mountain, and even backwards in order to escape the Yeti, making for a fun and thrilling adventure!
The Expedition Everest mountain is massive and peaks at 199.5 feet tall. Its protector, the Yeti, was one of the largest and complex audio-animatronics Disney has produced! Sadly, the Yeti no longer hurls himself at guests as it once did due to structural issues. For years now, a strobe light has been used to simulate movement. This is why the Yeti is often referred to as the “Disco Yeti.” According to Joe Rohde, we may see the Yeti restored to his original, terrifying glory yet again in the future.
Why It’s My Pick:
Some of the best Disney Park attractions have been original concepts, such as Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and Jungle Cruise. I personally feel Expedition Everest belongs in this legendary category as it wasn’t inspired by a film, but rather a real location! Instead of watching a character live out an adventure in an attraction, I’m the one living out an adventure on Expedition Everest, scaling the snowy mountains of Nepal.
I also love Expedition Everest’s queue. It’s one of Disney’s best and is richly layered with detail, culture, and storytelling elements. The ride experience itself is fantastic as well. It starts slow, offers a bird’s-eye view of the park and the entire Walt Disney World property, and then escalates into a high-speed chase adventure! Now, even though the ride has some intense moments, it’s still a popular hit for families.
Disney’s Aulani Resort in Oahu, Hawaii debuted in 2011 and perfectly captures the authentic Hawaiian culture and its people. Like most Disney Resorts, Aulani offers both standard resort rooms and a variety of Disney Vacation Club (DVC) villas; but it’s also one of the few Disney destinations existing without an adjacent theme park. In addition to a postcard-perfect beach, Aulani provides a variety of shopping and dining experiences, plus a spa, snorkeling lagoon, pools, splash zones, lazy rivers and slides, excursions, entertainment, and much more.
Why It’s My Pick: Joe Rohde was raised in Hawaii, and it seems it was his mission to honor his home and show guests what real Hawaii is all about. He certainly succeeded as Aulani celebrates and communicates the history and culture of Hawaii in pretty much everything you see. It facilitates each guest’s own Hawaiian adventure. It’s also worth noting that Aulani was also a project beyond Rohde’s usual scope of work. It wasn’t an attraction, a land in a park, or even a park! It’s a luxury resort, one without a nearby theme park. It needed to be a draw all its own. The fact that this resort is such a success is why I think Aulani deserves a spot on this list.
2. Pandora – The World of Avatar
Pandora – The World of Avatar is Animal Kingdom’s newest land, themed after the planet showcased in James Cameron’s Avatar. This land is home to floating mountains, bioluminescent plants, and two leading attractions: Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey. Pandora – The World of Avatar provides a whole new experience at night when the bioluminescent foliage and other lighting effects are showcased. Guests can also purchase their own banshee and other Avatar merchandise as well as enjoy an otherworldly Pandora-inspired menu at Satu’li Canteen.
Why It’s My Pick: I was VERY skeptical of Disney’s decision to build Pandora – The World of Avatar. I had seen the film several times over the years and found it enjoyable, but not incredible… and lacking a fan base. I actually thought Pandora – The World of Avatar would be a blunder for Disney. Thankfully, I was wrong.
When I experienced the land for myself, it quickly became one my favorite places at Walt Disney World. It’s literally art guests can walk around in. The surroundings both look and feel like they’re from the planet Pandora. I appreciate that Rohde and Imagineering were true to the film, all while still communicating the message of Animal Kingdom: that the natural world is the star and should be preserved. Also, Flight of Passage is fantastic. Yes, I too am wary of screen rides, but this attraction is both moving and exhilarating. There’s more than hype to those lengthy wait times, I assure you. So, due to the challenge this project presented, and how Rohde went above and beyond in delivery, Pandora – The World of Avatar deserves this second place slot.
1. Animal Kingdom
Disney’s Animal Kingdom park opened to guests on Earth Day in 1998 as Walt Disney World’s fourth park. It’s also the resort’s largest park at a whopping 500 plus acres! Animal Kingdom is truly unique in that it features wildlife from around the world, as well as theme park attractions and live entertainment. The park has continued to grow and evolve through the years. In 2017, it welcomed guests to its newest land: Pandora – The World of Avatar.
Why It’s My Pick: Animal Kingdom was truly Joe Rohde’s project and a massive undertaking. This park doesn’t feature audio-animatronic birds, pirates, or presidents. Animal Kingdom celebrates the wonder and majesty of the real world. With that focus, Rohde and Imagineering had to learn how to meet the needs of animals and the regulations that come with them. The fact that Kilimanjaro Safaris even exists is still mind-blowing to me. They also brought African and Asian locations to life, all while honoring their unique histories and cultures. Clearly, Animal Kingdom is a triumph in so many ways. This is why I rank it as Joe Rohde’s top Imagineering project.
Those are my top 5 favorite Joe Rohde Imagineering projects, but I want to hear yours! How do you rank Joe Rohde’s awesome projects? Let me know!