Imagineer Joe Rohde Being Named a Disney Legend is Great, But…

If anyone deserves to be a Disney Legend, it’s legendary former Imagineer Joe Rohde. And he’ll soon receive that honor, during the 2024 D23 Expo. This post shares the full slate of upcoming honorees at the upcoming awards ceremony, plus why that is not the stage we want to see him on during the ‘Ultimate Fan Event.’

Let’s start with the basics of the Disney Legends Award Ceremony, which will be presented at the end of the D23 Expo on Sunday, August 11, 2024. The Disney Legends Award honors artists and visionaries throughout the company’s history who have pushed the envelope of creativity, challenged conventional wisdom, and broken the restraints of the status quo in search of new possibilities and excellence.

“To be named a Disney Legend is the highest honor our company can bestow on anyone, reserved for those whose talent and achievement have earned them an enduring place in our history,” said Bob Iger, Chief Executive Officer, The Walt Disney Company. “The fourteen individuals to be honored as Disney Legends this year have each made extraordinary creative contributions across the worlds of Disney and we look forward to celebrating them at D23: The Ultimate Disney Fan Event.”

The 2024 Disney Legends Award honorees include Colleen Atwood, Angela Bassett, Martha Blanding, James L. Brooks, James Cameron, Jamie Lee Curtis, Miley Cyrus, Steve Ditko, Harrison Ford, Mark Henn, Frank Oz, Kelly Ripa, Joe Rohde, and John Williams.

Ryan Seacrest, the host of American Top 40, as well as American Idol and Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve on ABC, will host the 2024 Disney Legends Awards Ceremony that will be filled with heartwarming tributes to each of the honorees, along with special guests, performances, and a legendary production like no other.

The Disney Legends Awards program is a 37-year tradition of The Walt Disney Company, which began when Fred MacMurray (The Shaggy DogThe Absent-Minded ProfessorThe Happiest Millionaire) was honored in 1987. The awards ceremony is just one of the many events fans can enjoy during the three-day D23 Expo in August 2024.

Here’s a visual of the 2024 class of Disney Legends:

On Instagram, Rohde had this to say about being named a Disney Legend:

Check it out! I’m honored along with some other pretty cool folks to join the 2024 class of Disney Legends at D23: The Ultimate Disney Fan Event…if you’ve never been, take it from me, it really is ultimate.

While I am flattered and proud to receive such recognition, the real honors go to the people who gave me a chance, the people who mentored and guided me, the people who forgave me when I did foolish things, the people who trusted me to direct them and lead them, the people who actually did the work with their own hands, my family who put up with decades of my coming and going, and not least the guests and audiences who receive all of our work with such enthusiasm.

And, regardless of whatever accomplishment warrants this honor, there would be no Disney Legends at all if not for the most legendary, Walt Disney himself, whose creative impact on an entire century will always far outpace any legends who trail in his wake.

As for me, I will have to decide whether I want to memorialize my handprints, or figure out some way to press the side of my head with my earrings into the cement. …in any case…see you there.

Cutting to the chase of this post, this is nice and all…but what we’d actually like to see is Joe Rohde brought back to Imagineering.

With the return of Bruce Vaughn last year, we speculated that Bob Iger was working on rebuilding Imagineering. It’s worth remembering that Walt Disney Imagineering was hit really hard in 2020-2022. This started with actual layoffs, and continued with layoffs in disguise via WDI’s planned move from Glendale, California to Lake Nona, Florida. As you likely know, that move did not happen.

Our speculation has been that Bob Iger is gearing up for another development cycle and wants an ally at Imagineering. Iger and Vaughn worked together during the last big boom for the theme parks, so this would not be even a remotely far-fetched scenario. With the recent departure of Barbara Bouza, the President of Walt Disney Imagineering, this seemed even more plausible.

Vaughn will have an easier time working with or luring creatives to return than Bouza, who was an outside hire made right as WDI’s layoffs started and relocation plans were revealed. None of that was her fault, obviously, but she came to “symbolize” a bad era for Imagineering.

This all relates to Joe Rohde because he was one of the high-profile retirements during the dark days of Imagineering in 2020 that might have actually been “retirements” (with heavy air quotes). Joe Rohde and Bob Weis quickly getting new jobs after leaving Disney suggests that those were “retirements.”

Fast-forward to 2024 and the environment is dramatically different. Chapek is out. The Lake Nona move is not happening. Disney is no longer in a holding pattern on new development. Vaughn and Iger are both back. Animal Kingdom is on the precipice of the park’s biggest expansion since (at least) Pandora – World of Avatar.

Heck, even Tom Staggs is once again working with Disney in a consulting capacity. (Rounding out the trio in the photos, James Cameron is still out there doing James Cameron things, like being a submersible expert…and also being named a Disney Legend. Hmmm.) It’s like 2014 all over again. Few could fathom Disney would be at this point back in the darkest depths of 2020 when Rohde “retired.”

Call me crazy, but I think the stage should be set for Joe Rohde to return to Disney. It’s not any one of these individual things, but the totality of them. Naming Rohde a Disney Legend was an inevitability, so it’s certainly not just that. But of course, honoring his storied career certainly doesn’t hurt–and is another example of good ole fashioned bridge rebuilding that has occurred during the second Iger regime.

(I will once again say that I think some of you who view Iger and Chapek as interchangeable “villains” truly underestimate just how much invisible damage Chapek inflicted during his reign of terror. There’s a reason so many people within the company cheered Chapek’s ouster and Iger’s return…and also back Bob in the proxy fight, for that matter.)

Designing and building theme parks is a highly collaborative endeavor, and they’re never the singular vision of any one person. It’s the intersection of art and commerce, with a bunch of different stakeholders (creative and otherwise) all having input. But to the extent that there has ever been a theme park auteur, it’s Rohde with Animal Kingdom.

He has been the guardian of Animal Kingdom and safeguarded the park and its original vision. By and large, Animal Kingdom still is today what old school EPCOT Center fans wish that park still was: thematically pure. There have been a couple of close calls over the years, but Rohde always managed to work his magic and make alien additions feel like perfect fits.

That’s the criticism when Pandora – World of Avatar was first announced, and it was absolutely scathing. Walt Disney World fans as a whole questioned a land about Blue Alien Sex Cats, and Animal Kingdom purists were livid that a supposedly inconsequential blockbuster movie would be added to their beloved zoological theme park.

And yet, Joe Rohde silenced the haters with Pandora. It’s not perfect, but it’s a better and more thematically coherent addition to Animal Kingdom than it has any right to be. Imagineering needs Joe Rohde to ensure the same for the upcoming Tropical Americas project (and beyond).

In our view, the key difference between Pandora and upcoming expansion is that Joe Rohde and his deft touch have since left Imagineering. This is why we’ve expressed skepticism about blue sky daydreaming for Animal Kingdom expansion over the last couple of years. (We’re also disappointed that Disney has done dinosaurs dirty, but that’s another topic for another day.)

Honestly, the exact same announcement about Animal Kingdom getting Encanto or Indiana Jones could’ve been made, but if Joe Rohde were the one up on stage offering reassurances, I’d felt much better about it. He is one of the few modern Imagineers to have earned that trust, and his ability to world-build and thoughtfully integrate intellectual property where it otherwise might not belong was pretty incredible. He’d get the little details and placemaking right, ensuring that the stories Tropical America tells are not just extensions of movies, but befitting of Animal Kingdom.

This is precisely why Imagineering needs to bring Rohde back. He made Avatar work in Animal Kingdom, so he can certainly make Encanto and Indiana Jones work. These IPs are a cakewalk as compared to Avatar. I don’t doubt that there are other Imagineers who can weave them into Animal Kingdom tastefully, but no one can do it like Rohde.

Ultimately, this is all a bit of wishful thinking…but also seems logical and conceivable in a way that it didn’t when the plans were first shared for a since-shelved Moana and Zootopia expansion of Animal Kingdom at the 2022 D23 Expo. The stars have aligned in the last two years, and Rohde’s return seems reasonable. He wouldn’t be the first, and probably not the last.

Of course, there’s the counterpoint that maybe the dude is out there enjoying retirement, living his life, and doesn’t want to get back into the corporate politics of Disney. That’s nonsense. Joe Rohde is the Tom Brady of Imagineering. The man’s a baller who very clearly still has the fire, the creative drive, and the sense of pride in what Animal Kingdom is and aspires to be. Also like Brady, he also presumably found the fountain of youth on his adventures, so he has at least a few more decades in the tank.

Rohde truly believes in the power of themed design, and still has something to contribute. While I doubt he would pick up the call to work on something superfluous at Avengers Campus, I believe he’d absolutely return for Animal Kingdom. (And not just in a superficial sense or to pay him off so he doesn’t say mean things about Animal Kingdom’s direction on social media.)

It’s likely Rohde would return if he thinks his very valuable input would actually be heard, and he has the chance to make a meaningful impact in helping to shape the future of Animal Kingdom in a major way. Now it’s up to Disney to pick up the phone, and bring Rohde up on stage the night before the Legends ceremony for a much more important presentation.

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What do you think of legendary Imagineer Joe Rohde being honored (officially) as a Disney Legend? Think this–and other things–are signs that Rohde will return to work on the Animal Kingdom expansion? Or is that simply wishful thinking on our part? 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!

30 Responses to “Imagineer Joe Rohde Being Named a Disney Legend is Great, But…”
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