Imagineer Joe Rohde’s Instagram Essays on Inspiration Behind the Tree of Life and The Adventurers Club at Walt Disney World
While nearly all of Walt Disney World is closed due to the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, legendary Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde is offering a different kind of tour of some of his work.
In a series of post on his Instagram account, Rohde explained the thesis behind the design of Disney’s Animal Kingdom’s Tree of Life. The tree was intentionally designed to be natural, to reflect the natural aesthetic of the park. Most fans know that the carvings on the tree are modeled after a wide variety of animals, but you may not know that it’s supposed to invoke a kind of magic through art, to prove that nature rewards those that pay attention to it. As Rohde explains, “Since nature is everywhere anyway, we also need to signify that this place is exceptional… in some way ‘magical.’ Thus… a strange tree. A tree whose body disappears under patient observation to become nothing but animals. [It’s] a metaphor for the rewards nature can provide to the careful observer. But since we all know it has been made… it is a work of art… it also signifies the intent to communicate… to tell a story. In fact, the Tree promises two things. 1. This place is a story place about animals. 2. This place is a designed place full of virtuoso accomplishments.”
In a later post, Rohde discussed the selection process behind the animals represented on the tree, as well as the theming of the animal encounters of the park’s lands. He expounded the encounters are concerned with how humans coexist with animals and the natural world. Africa, through Kilmanjaro Safaris and Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, calls into question how humans use resources like ivory and rhino horn, despite their negative impact on animal populations. Asia is focused on habitat loss and how humans and animals can coexist in the same environment, as demonstrated in Kali River Rapids and Maharajah Jungle Trek. And while it may not offer any earthly creatures to encounter, Pandora – The World of Avatar is concerned with pollution, and how we can reuse resources to reduce our impact.
As for the Tree of Life, Rhode explained that the animals were selected for their range of sizes and how the adapt to their natural habitats: “Each of these animals has strikingly unique adaptations. A marsupial deer with the body of a giant hare. A rodent with really pokey hair. A bird with an upside down mouth. A giant parrot with nutcracker jaws. Something is at work here. A principal of life.”
In addition, Rohde offered a blast from Walt Disney World’s past, by discussing the idea behind the Adventurers Club, along with some original concept art!
Rohde explained that the initial concept for the club was inspired by the Magic Castle in Los Angeles. And while the magic theming may not have been as obvious in its final form, some aspects of that did survive into the finished club, like the Treasure Room’s floating lantern effect. The idea was to play against guest expectations and offer a contrast to the “scripted” entertainment of the parks, hence why live actors and puppets were used with a lot of improv. But perhaps Rohde’s most fascinating insight is that the thesis of the club isn’t adventure, but rather a sense of belonging. No matter how different you may feel, there was always a home for you at the Adventurers Club.