Disney World News: Iconic Imagineer Retires, EPCOT Overhaul Update, Hotel Construction
We’re back with another Walt Disney World news & rumor round-up. This one covers the retirement of a celebrity Imagineer, the latest on scope & scale cutbacks to EPCOT’s overhaul, progress on the entrance royal makeovers, new hotel tower construction, and more.
Let’s start with EPCOT. Following last week’s presentation about the “Magic of Possibility,” Walt Disney World issued a new press release about the park’s “historic transformation.” A few things stand out from this. First, what is not mentioned at all. That includes projects were already know were “postponed” indefinitely (read: cancelled), like the Mary Poppins attraction and Spaceship Earth reimagining.
To our surprise, the Play Pavilion also is not mentioned, suggesting it might’ve been cut from the plans. We had assumed the Play Pavilion was safe, both because work on the exterior has continued, and since the project was pretty far along pre-closure. It’s entirely possible that the omission is an oversight, or that Walt Disney World isn’t quite sure how to handle a very “hands on” attraction at a time when all such other experiences in the parks are currently closed. Some other surprises include what is mentioned…
The big one there is Moana’s Journey of Water, which will partly replace the section of Innoventions that’s still standing. Not that we expected this interactive walk-through to be cancelled, but we figured its fate was potentially still up in the air until new plans for Future World’s core were finalized. (So perhaps that has now happened?)
The press release essentially just rehashes what we already knew about this attraction, calling it a lush exploration trail with magical, living water. “Just like Moana’s friend the ocean, water will have a personality of its own, helping guests learn how to protect the natural water cycle in a fun and engaging way.”
Some other noteworthy info concerns World Celebration. This is also known as the Central Spine Redesign, which is rumored to be back at the drawing board for scope and scale cutbacks. However, the press release notes that Dreamers Point and its statue of Walt Disney is still a thing. No surprise there, as a Walt Disney statue is something with minimal cost that gets fans salivating.
Additionally, “beautiful natural environments and global design elements filled with Disney magic and surprises, including a story fountain celebrating the power and music of iconic Disney storytelling.” Our expectation is that this area remains lush, but loses some of the engaging and eye-catching features. (Trees are cheaper!)
The press release continues: “Surrounding this enchanted garden will be new retail and dining locations, along with a newly reimagined festival area that will be home to ever-changing events in a unique new environment.”
Bad news for the three-level Festival Center, which is all but dead at this point. Also not a surprise, since Walt Disney World previously stated that the company will “take a different approach” with the new Festival Center. Still, we were hoping for something scaled-back but still architecturally-ambitious, and not just a “festival area.” Here’s hoping they don’t throw down mulch & soil, add some food booths, and call it a day.
Sticking with the EPCOT area, we have a construction update on the Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, the 349 room tower being added to the Swan & Dolphin Resorts. This 14-story hotel is currently under construction and scheduled to open Summer 2021.
Every time we head down Epcot Resorts Blvd. or World Drive, we see crews actively working on this, and progress is visible from week to week. Despite low occupancy at the Swan & Dolphin right now and significant layoffs from the properties, it would seem the hotelier is confident of a rebound by next summer. Here’s hoping they’re right!
Next, another progress report on the Royal Makeover of the Walt Disney World entrance gateways. This is the one on Western Way, which is furthest along and will probably wrap up within the next couple of days. We seldom drive through the others, but know they’re not this close to being completed.
A lot of you aren’t thrilled by this redesign, thinking it looks bland or generic as compared to the prior style. This is definitely a less is more look. It’s also better. When you’re only passing through this gateway infrequently and on vacation, your brain might “paint over” its blemishes.
We drive through this gateway every single day. Literally any time we leave the house, whether to visit Walt Disney World or not. The old one was looking really worse for wear–like it had seen better days. This one really pops, especially when the sun is hitting it and there are some puffy clouds behind it. Which, given that this is Florida, is often how it looks!
Finally, legendary Imagineer Joe Rohde announced that he’s retiring from his position with the Walt Disney Company effective January 4, 2021. Rohde has had a 40 year career with Walt Disney Imagineering, beginning as a model designer during the planning of EPCOT Center.
Rohde followed that project with a slew of now-extinct cult classic offerings, including the Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island, Maelstrom in the Norway Pavilion, and Captain EO. Following that, Rohde rose to prominence during the Eisner era as the mastermind behind the planning and development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
More recently, Rohde’s portfolio has been one hit after another, with Expedition Everest and Pandora – World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, the Aulani Disney Vacation Club Resort in Hawaii, Villages Nature Paris Eco-Resort, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout reimagining at Disney California Adventure.
While we’re hardly fans of that last one, it proved Rohde could make lemonade out of lemons and work within tight parameters. Rohde has been an Imagineering fan-favorite thanks in small part to his eccentricities, but more so because he’s truly passionate about themed design and his craft, and doesn’t condescend or use PR-speak. This is borne out in the thought-provoking presentations he delivers, and his simultaneously blunt and esoteric social media presence.
Rohde issued a statement about his retirement on Instagram:
I’m sure by now many of you have come across the news that I am retiring from Walt Disney Imagineering. It has been 40 years since I stepped foot in the door at age 25, not knowing anything about theme parks, Disney, or what it meant to work for a big company. Every day of my life since then has been a learning experience.
I’m very glad to have had that opportunity, and proud of the work that has been done, not just by me, but by all my fellow Imagineers, and especially those who worked by my side over the decades. But 40 years is a long time, and this strange quiet time seems like a great opportunity to slip away without too much disruption.
If I wait, I will once again be in the middle of another huge project and by the time that is done, I would be truly old. I’m not that old yet and there are things I want to do that cannot be done here. We encourage a culture of storytellers, not just amongst ourselves but among our guests and our fans, and because of this, there is a strong temptation to take this moment and turn it into a story. But what story?
I think it’s a coming of age story. I started at Disney as a child, and I learned almost all my life lessons there, developed my confidence, recognized my skills and weaknesses, and went on to work with both… and do what could be done. I could stay forever, but that is like remaining in another kind of womb. I want to see what a grown man might be able to do on his own.
This site here is not really for Disney. It’s for us. I imagine that there are many of you who will be sad that I will no longer be a daily part of the Disney company, and there will be some of you who will drift away and no longer follow my ruminations because they feel they aren’t relevant. But I will still be here. And I will still be thinking about things, and doing things, and talking about things… Because that’s kind of what I do.
I mentioned in my departure note and I will mention here again the tremendous debt that I owe to our guests and our fans who have been so generous. Working as an Imagineer has made me a good designer, but it is all of you who have made me a better person.
Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis also shared a statement:
Joe Rohde is a real life adventurer–in life, in art, and in work. Whether trekking across the mountains of Mongolia on an expedition to raise awareness for snow leopard conservation, or leading project teams from Animal Kingdom to Aulani to Pandora, Joe fully embodies the true spirit of adventure and exploration. He approaches these experiences, not as a tourist, but with curiosity, respect, and purpose. â£â£
Joe has committed forty years to bringing dynamic, inventive, and diverse projects to Disney parks. While he is widely renowned for his unmatched expertise across numerous creative disciplines, he’s also an expert in every facet of leading and managing our projects, from setting the vision to feasibility, design and execution. His unyielding commitment to excellence across all aspects of projects, and his demand for authenticity and including diverse, indigenous cultures in design and production, are hallmarks of his projects and what differentiate them from all others.â£â£
Today, Joe announced his plans to retire from the company, and while I respect and accept his decision, I know he will remain part of our Imagineering family, a mentor to our current and future generation, and certainly the best example to our worldwide audience of what it is to be an Imagineer.
Obviously, we wish Mr. Rohde the best in his future endeavors and look forward to following whatever that might entail on social media. No matter what the topic, his perspective is invaluable and thought-provoking. His retirement is a huge loss for Imagineering and Disney fans everywhere, and he leaves some Na’vi sized shoes to fill.
Beyond that, Rohde’s retirement leaves a few unanswered questions. For one, what’s happening with the Lighthouse Point Bahamas project for Disney Cruise Line that he was helming. This is (was?) a very controversial development, and Rohde was undoubtedly chosen because he’s Disney’s best ambassador when it comes to conservation and building in ways that are respectful to other cultures.
Is Rohde’s retirement a sign that Lighthouse Point is being abandoned? Between the devastating effects of the ongoing cruise industry shutdown and a renewed focus on the ills of over-tourism during said shutdown, it would not be a surprise to see Disney quietly back away from the project. On the other hand, Disney has plowed through all past protests over Lighthouse Point, so perhaps the company doesn’t feel it needs Rohde to “sell” Lighthouse Point anymore.
The other question is who’s left at Imagineering?! Between recent retirements of several high profile creatives and the layoff of over 400 Imagineers, it would seem the creative department is now pretty lean. Most of the old guard with strong connections to Walt Disney Imagineering’s historic legacy are gone. Some of the new public faces–including those in high positions–don’t have many projects on their resumes.
To be sure, there are no doubt many highly talented individuals still working in Glendale and Imagineering’s other offices. It’s also not the worst thing for fresh faces with new ideas and ways of doing things to be given a chance at innovating. As with Walt Disney World, it’s just a little disconcerting how much institutional knowledge Walt Disney Imagineering has lost in the last several months (even the last several years). It also doesn’t exactly bode well for the development cycle and what’s on the horizon in the decade to come. We already knew that not many new projects would be started at Walt Disney World or Disneyland anytime soon, but the downsizing at Imagineering only further reinforces that.
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Thoughts on any of this Walt Disney World news? What do you think of the hotel construction or royal makeover of the entrance archways? Surprised by Joe Rohde’s retirement? Concerned about the future of projects at Walt Disney World and beyond? 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!
Yes!! FIX THE YETI! HE PROMISED!
It’s hard to find a silver lining in any of this Epcot news. While they have spent billions overseas, we have a broken monorail, no beautiful light parade at the MK, and an Epcot park that has needed enormous attention for 2 decades. Looking at the Tokyo parks, the billions spent for 2 Star Wars rides, and then seeing how they have let their most unique park in all of the world fall apart is mind boggling. Journey to Imagination for example, come on!!! Really? That’s the best you can do in 20 years? Epcot has gotten by on nostalgia, festivals, restaurant dining, and shopping for too long. I would never recommend that an infrequent or first time visitor choose Epcot as the park to spend their one and only day at WDW. Let’s face it, if Epcot was built as a stand alone park by, let’s say Microsoft, it would be critically panned and a financial disaster. It would be on one of those “Defunct Theme Park” YouTube videos by now.
Mr. Rohde’s retirement is sad news but well deserved. He certainly gave us some wonderful attractions and designs. I would not be surprised to see him consulting with Disney or the competition on an occasional special project. He strikes me a a man that won’t be content hanging out at home watering the plants and tinkering in the garage.
Any news is good news (re Swan/Dolphin development), but I’d suggest those hotels exist in a bubble of their own in being centrally located on site without being a Disney hotel. They only exist due to something of a historic anomaly and attract a unique demographic. I’ll be more optimistic when I see almost any other development, eg “true” on site hotels or hotels in the surrounding area.
I am glad Walt Disney statue is still a thing since I am one of those salivating fans of his haha.
I am fine with the entrance gateway makeover.
I agree with your thoughts on Joe Rohde. I love his attention to details on the main attractions, queues, and themed lands. I put up with slight nausea on Expedition Everest because I enjoy the details of the queue and the attraction itself.
Ha. My problem with the Walt Disney statue here is that it’s very transparent fan service. On a substantive level, nothing about the overhaul of EPCOT is inspired by his vision of EPCOT–nothing.
Contrast that with Buena Vista Street, for example. Almost everything about that project was inspired by Walt Disney’s Los Angeles and his early Hollywood projects. The Storytellers statue there feels “earned” instead of just hollow window-dressing.
Just my take, though. To each their own! 🙂
Tom is surprisingly calm about Future world remaining a slum of half-finished underfunded garbage for another 25 years.
Competition from within should bring up some new Talent to take over the reigns.
New minds comes new Ideas !
Keep in mind that the greatest expansion came during the Mike Eisner era. Hopefully this can be on the horizon again.
He should have negotiated to have the Yeti fixed in his retirement package! lol
Also, I wish they would have used more iridescence in the entrances and on the Magic Kingdom welcome sign. Would make it much more interesting in the sun and at night.
I’ll be honest, while the concept of the festival center was gorgeous, I was never a fan of it in that location. I felt like it was going to take away or block from the view of Spaceship Earth from around World Showcase. I wasn’t disappointed when they said they were going to take a different approach, with the hope that they were designing something with the same aesthetic but maybe on a different scale. What I am disappointed about is the very real possibility that you mention of “mulch and some Food Booths”. EPCOT has been waiting so long for its turn for an overhaul and the timing is so unfortunate. Hoping they don’t swing the pendulum too far in the other direction.
Oh they will. The Festival Pavilion was the focal piece of the remodel. It’s absolutely devastating to see it gone and replaced with astroturf. Imagine something actually futuristic in future world. Maybe for the 75th they can try again, but it will be Eisner era garbage for the interim.
I feel Disney will really be hurting without this great imagineer. We have watched him on a few shows, A mastermind. Wish him a deserved retirement. I hope you will keep us posted on any new projects he may get involved with. Thanks Tom!
So Typical Disney…..They make outrageous profits for years, and with one downturn, all new planning is scaled back or canceled. This news is very disappointing!
Adventure Club….how I miss that still. They should work on bring that back. In regards to changes. We really can’t expect too much since Disney isn’t getting the heavy influx of people like they usually do. It will happen, hopefully next year will be brighter. There are so many unfinished projects. It will be a surprise to those of us that had to push back travel plans. Thanks for the update Tom.
Tom is surprisingly calm about Future world remaining a slum of half-finished underfunded garbage for another 25 years.
(Accidentally posted this as a reply to something else, but the point stands. I don’t understand why you could see anything positive coming out of this. Future World had one chance and it’s gone for likely the rest of our lives. I’m kind of over it, because Epcot has been half finished for my entire life. It’s more of a lateral shift for me. I just assume this is the future of WDW for the foreseeable future. Budget cuts, compromises, and of course fat bonuses for the CEOs for being so fiscally clever. )
Joe Rohde retired will be a lot less expensive than Joe Rodhe still working. And I’d bet he would return as a consultant if they asked him.
I wondered the same thing about Lighthouse Point. I’d be surprised if it was being shelved given the recent confirmation that the orders for additional ships are still in track, albeit a little delayed. In a world with seven ships in the Disney fleet, it’s hard to see that port not coming to fruition (especially given the obstacles already overcome as you noted. I wonder, or maybe hope is the better word, if there’s a chance Joe might still be involved with the project in a consulting role. Could make sense too if the project’s timeline is being pushed back as well, which seems inevitable. Give Joe and the company some flexibility in the interim.
The Rohde story and massive losses at Imagineering sting. I can’t put words around things very well but Animal Kingdom has always felt amazing to me. It’s the only park I never went to as a kid…but as an adult it makes me feel the way Magic Kingdom or EPCOT did when I was a kid.
I hope that Disney doesn’t lose touch with what makes them different.
Sorry Tom – so far still not feeling the new look of the entrance gateway. Not sure the colors go together as well as the old – the gold caps appear harsh against the grey. The old color scheme just needed to be refresh.
Hope the finish look will bring me to the other side. Love to see the finish look of the new when done next to a picture of the old.
Just not buying all the grey – too close to the look of grey cinder blocks.
That’s a fair critique.
Called Rohde leaving back on Oct 2 in the comments on this blog…Tom wasn’t a fan though. https://www.disneytouristblog.com/disney-world-news-layoff-thoughts-annual-pass-sales-resume-expo-delayed/comment-page-1/#comments
Wish him all the best and hope Disney continues fostering creative genius!
Its like the tag line in matrix, everything that has a beginning l, has an end. Until they make another one. Lol.
Have confidence that the upcoming talent will take things to a new level. They have no choice but to do so. Once we get back to some normalcy the competition for talent will be strong.
Hotel development is in a very interesting position right now. We are breaking ground on new flags for guys who just mothballed another flag in the same town. Financing is a big part right now. Interest rates are low, but lenders are very gun shy of new projects. Then you have investors with the cash reserves making enough returns in the market they aren’t jumping at the chance either. The hotel market always ebbs and flows, but the next quarter could send the market in a completely different trajectory. Vaccines can’t come soon enough.
Oh for sure. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in the next couple years. Even if domestic leisure travel rebounds quickly due to pent-up demand, I suspect convention business will be slower (and never hit the highs it reached last year). That’s a problem for the Swan & Dolphin.
but he can’t leave until the yeti is fixed…
I thought the same! Who will fix the yeti? Congrats to Joe on his new chapter!
With or without Rohde, I have a hard time believing that was going to happen in the next decade. Honestly, I’m 100% fine with that. It’s an incredibly costly project with minimal ROI. That money is better spent elsewhere.
If I were Joe I would have bailed too. Thanks for DAK. Hoping for more attractions but it truly is beautiful in theming and has 3 truly amazing theme attractions. Hoping for some hope and optimism but settling for realism for WDW.
“Hoping for some hope and optimism but settling for realism for WDW.”
The upside is that several big, ambitious projects were built or green-lit during a time of fairly unprecedented expansion. We’ll be seeing the fruits of that for the next several years, albeit it on a slower timeline than originally envisioned.
Personally, I’m thankful this didn’t all happen while Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or Pandora were in development and could’ve had their budgets cut…