Walt Disney Imagin

Congratulations to Joe Rohde on his retirement, plus my thanks, and some speculation about the future of Disney parks

I wanted to congratulate Joe Rohde on his retirement after 40 years with Imagineering, and to say a public thanks for his involvement in projects that have meant a lot to me.

Over the years, Animal Kingdom has become my favorite park at Walt Disney World. Of course, that’s not due to any one person, but I think the main reason Animal Kingdom has gotten better over time is because of a commitment to world-building in every single detail, whether it’s inside an attraction or not. Being able to communicate, explain, express, and defend that vision is most often credited to Rohde, and it makes sense. He just seems to get, on a fundamental level, what that park is about and why it works. On top of everything else, I love that Animal Kingdom exists as tangible proof that an insistence on thoughtful, exhaustively-researched, ethically conscious design can actually make a tangible difference.

Today I’ve seen a lot of people online worrying about what Rohde’s retirement will mean for the future of Disney parks and Imagineering, and I’ve got some opinions on that, too. I should probably emphasize that I list the WDI projects I worked on in my “About” section because I’m extremely proud of them, not because I’m in any way an “insider” or have any kind of informed opinion about how Imagineering actually works. I contracted for everything, and I was never a “real” employee. Disney has such a culture of “magic” and showmanship that even their behind-the-scenes specials are as carefully controlled and presented as anything actually happening on-stage, and there have been plenty of times that I haven’t been able to tell the difference. So all of this is just one fan’s opinion, based on nothing other than interviews, documentaries, and being in the parks quite a bit.

My gut reaction was pretty much the same as Cabel Sasser’s on Twitter. It’s tough to see so many people leaving Disney — voluntarily, as a result of the pandemic, or some combination of the two — and not worry that they’re losing all the creative talent that makes the “soul” of the company. Cabel said, “you can’t outsource ‘magic.'”

And I personally know a few very talented people who’ve left the company, which makes it feel less familiar, somehow. I no longer have a sense of genuine, actual people there making the stuff I love to see; it’s harder to put a face to all of the brilliant work.

That whole idea of putting a face on the work is especially relevant here, since Joe Rohde might be the most well-known Imagineer still with the company. He’s easy to spot in interviews, he looks distinctive enough to be incorporated into ride back-stories, and he’s credited with fan favorites like The Adventurer’s Club, Aulani, Animal Kingdom. Having him be the public face of the Guardians of the Galaxy overlay of the California Adventure Tower of Terror gave a lot of us confidence that it would turn out well, and that confidence paid off: it could’ve been a cheap-feeling, pasted-on disaster, but I think every single element of it was an upgrade of the original. Considering that Imagineering has traditionally avoided giving individuals credit, having your name made public at all is an achievement, much less becoming so recognizable that you get something of a fan following when you walk around the parks.

But I’d still take issue with that one point: “You can’t outsource ‘magic.'” On the contrary, I think that when you’re talking about any project on such a large scale in years, team size, and sheer physical size as a Disney theme park attraction — if not an entire park — it’s probably likely that the tiny detail that stood out to you and made something perfect was actually made (and possibly even conceived) by a contractor. Especially on projects from Disney, most of the people working on them are going to have a deep love of the source material and a special pride in what they’re doing.

I tend to bristle at the “auteur” theory in any case, but especially so with projects as large and complex as these. Joe Rohde has already, several times over, acknowledged the work of talented artists and craftsmen who’ve worked on the parks — check out his excellent Instagram feed, if you haven’t already — and I would guess that at the conceptual, overall design level, it would be a gross over-simplification to credit them to one person. There’s this idea that people only get to be well-known if they’re a straight-up genius, master talent. I’m not buying it, and that’s not at all a knock on Mr Rohde’s work or his talent. In fact, it’s admiration for what I believe is probably his greatest, and rarest, talent: he strikes me as such a great communicator.

My impression of Disney Imagineering, and Parks and Resorts, is that it frankly doesn’t need more “magic.” There’s no shortage of people who have loved this stuff their entire lives, and no shortage of talent to be able to execute it. And there’s even less of a shortage of great ideas on what Disney should do next. What’s really needed is someone who can take any one of these concepts and explain:

  • To the team: what the core of the idea is and what it’s supposed to accomplish
  • To the executives: why it makes good business sense
  • To the marketing team: how it’s good for the brand
  • To production: how to stay within the constraints demanded by executives without sacrificing what’s essential to the core idea
  • To artists and craftsmen: how the details of what they’re working on fit into the larger project
  • To operations: how to fit the “vision” of the experience with the demands of capacity and maintenance
  • To nerds like me watching behind-the-scenes documentaries: a high-level and idealized version of how the concept was realized
  • To normal people at the parks: how the core of the idea is relevant to their vacation

and be able to sell everyone on it. And that’s all knowing exactly what each audience needs to hear, and how to tell them what they need to hear, without misrepresenting the core idea or compromising on what’s essential to it. And without talking above them or below them, which might be the hardest of all.

The one time I met Mr Rohde was when I was as-silently-as-I-could following a very small group around my favorite parts of Animal Kingdom as he talked to my boss. After seeing his persona as presented in interviews and making-of documentaries and such, I’d expected him to be full of high-minded facts about animal habitats and Tibetan crafts traditions and such — and he was, when prompted — but his primary concerns were purely pragmatic: at the time, the park needed more bathrooms and more air conditioning. That simple observation has stood out to me over the years, because it’s so unlike any other creative bureaucracy I’ve worked in.

Most of the time, it’s seemed there’s an emphasis on top-down management, in which people at executive level just keep repeating the same high-level ideas over and over, leaving it to everyone listening to go off and “execute their vision.”1In the rare instances that I’ve “led” a project, I’ve been guilty of it, too, based on the belief that everyone else on the project knew how to do their jobs better than I could tell them. At least in this one instance, Mr Rohde seemed to understand that all of us were on board with Animal Kingdom and got what it was trying to achieve, so he didn’t need to talk to us about yurts and prayer wheels; he had an obligation to speak for the guests and the operations staff who keep hearing from the guests. He seemed like less a stakeholder than an ambassador.

I’m not particularly worried that Disney will be able to attract — or, I hope, hire back — great talent. I’m more worried that they won’t have people who can perform that kind of role, able to get so much great talent working in sync with so much money and so many design constraints. More people who can see all phases of a project and what’s required to make them work, without believing in an over-simplified “suits vs creatives” dichotomy.

Maybe I’m being naive, but I’m still optimistic about Disney’s being able to spring back. It’s probably a mistake to underestimate the financial impact of the pandemic, which seems almost designed to hit every division of the company: can’t go to theme parks, can’t go to movies, can’t travel, can’t go on cruises, non-essential stores are closed, can’t eat in restaurants. But I think the company’s got too much momentum, too many can’t-fail IPs, and attracts too much talent, to fall into another “dark age.”

I’m bad at predictions, but I believe it’s most likely that the theme parks will become more like the movie studios of 2020 rather than the movie studios of the 30s and 40s: individual projects such as a single attraction or a single land with one coherent vision, with creative teams that might even be “Disney employees” only for the length of the project before handing it to operations and then moving onto something else. It might lack the large-scale coherence of something like Tokyo DisneySea, Animal Kingdom, or Disneyland Paris. But we’ve already seen with Galaxy’s Edge and the Harry Potter projects at Universal that they can still be great experiences, complete within themselves.

And now, when we’re not enjoying those theme parks, we can maybe see what people like Joe Rohde can come up with when they’re not bound by the constraints inherent to Disney Imagineering. I don’t know; seems like a win-win.