5 things you might not expect Joe Rohde to say

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Joe Rohde retired from Walt Disney Imagineering two years ago. His work there included the development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park, the now-departed Adventurers Club nightspot at Pleasure Island and Aulani, the hot property of Disney Vacation Club in Hawaii.

In theory, at least, retirement allows more time for painting, but Rohde has more work-work on his plate.

I’m doing some work with Virgin Galactic, helping them define the guest experience of space tourism. ... I’m co-chairing this initiative with the Explorers Club to find unique explorers who would not naturally know about the Explorers Club or that they might belong in the Explorers Club, to find them and bring them into the club to sort of change the very definition of exploration so that the chemistry of the club itself can change. … I’m doing a little bit of work, pro bono, with Jane Goodall, a project on the side, and then traveling a lot and painting a lot,” Rohde said during a recent Spirit of the Time Zoomcast.

That monthly online production is hosted by Ryan Harmon and Joe Lanzisero, president and executive creative director, respectively, of Zeitgest Design & Production.

During the session, Rohde recapped segments of his career, gave advice to creative types, recalled the Michael Eisner years and talked about the label of “rebel.”

Here are five things you might not have expected to hear from Joe Rohde.

He wasn’t a Disney geek growing up

“I didn’t hate the Disney company. I watched the movies and things, like anybody would. But it wasn’t like I had this target in my mind. I wasn’t one of those people ... which was a disadvantage when you walk in the door [at Imagineering], in a certain sense, because I didn’t know very much at all,” Rohde said.

“But people who were walking around there did not define themselves as theme park designers. They claimed to be production designers, architects, art directors, sound designers. When you ask them what they were, that’s what they would tell you. So I could identify with that. Like, OK, I’m like these guys. I’m kind of like an art director — not yet — I’m a model builder, but I will be an art director. Not ‘I will be a theme park designer.’ It didn’t even occur to me that that’s what I was going to be because it didn’t occur to me that I was going to stay there for 40 years.”

He feared he wouldn’t last at Imagineering

His first role with WDI wasn’t a great fit.

“I got out of building models because I was terrible, truly terrible, right? And I was, like, if I stay in this position, they will fire me. I would fire me. And I just got lousier and lousier model-type jobs,” Rohde said. “I didn’t care. They’re paying me money. They’re paying me — a living wage — to cut pieces of wood into little squares and spray paint them gray? All day long? This is heaven.”

He drove Marty Sklar, Disney Legend and WDI executive, crazy sometimes

“I’m not, like, an on-brand kind of character,” Rohde said. “And don’t know how to follow all these protocols, I’m always getting in trouble. I’m always getting scolded. And I’m always frustrating him.”

But Sklar always found work for him.

“The tolerance and faith [of Sklar] that there’s something going on [with Rohde] is really remarkable, more remarkable than ‘Oh, this is my favorite person.’ ... It’s like there’s something worth investing in here, but man, it makes me crazy sometimes.’ That’s what is going in his head.”

Like the time Rohde chose to work on “Michael Eisner’s animal thing” over a surefire refresh of Epcot pavilions.

“Marty’s like, ‘Kid, I’ve got a five-year project. It is funded. It is on the business plan. It’s going to be done. I’m giving you this thing. … You would be in charge of conceptual development for Epcot renewals. I’m handing you this, and you make me crazy. And I’m handing you this, and you’re taking this animal thing, which is never going to happen.’

“So I walk out the door with this animal thing, that nobody knows what it can be. And Michael Eisner has these cryptic, like, three-word sentences: You know, people love the Magic Kingdom; they love the animal kingdom. And people love Disney. And people love animals. So if Disney did an animal thing, people would love that. The end. Wow.”

He’s not personally into audience participation

The Adventurers Club, a highly themed theater/nightclub hybrid, was a blend of what’s real and what’s not real. That boosted its following, Rohde said.

“People got into this state of like, this is real. This is my club. It is a club. This is really happening right now. It didn’t happen last night. It’s happening to me. It’s happening now. It’s something real. I’m a member of this club. ... As much as all that stuff that I piled up was really cool, what made the Adventurers Club work was the club of the club. The inclusion, the welcoming, the fact that you were brought inside the story. You were treated with honor; you were given a role.

“You didn’t have to take that role. That whole upstairs balcony was for all those people like me, who are, like, don’t come up to me and start talking to me in some character voice. I just want to sit here. I’m that guy. So I’d be sitting up here, but no, no, no, no, I don’t want to stand up and do a funny dance. Just gonna have my drink.

“So the club was designed so people could manage their own dial. If I stay upstairs, no one will do anything to me. If I go into that big room, there’s all kinds of big group things that happen. And if I go into those little rooms, someone is going to sit on my lap. It was very clear, you could set the dial yourself.”

He doesn’t like the rebel label

“If you cast yourself as a rebel, that means someone else is in charge. You’re the rebel, right? So that means there’s some boss somewhere. No, you’re the boss. … This rebel thing is a label. It’s a label applied to creative people by other people. And when you behave like a rebel because you’ve been labeled as a rebel, that is profiling. You have been profiled, and you are now acting out the profile that other people have applied to you.

“If you expect people to trust you with vast amounts of money, time and responsibility, that’s not the rebel. That’s not that person. That person is in a scruffy hide-out somewhere with a band of brothers and sisters doing some things. That’s great. Do that. … But if you want to have the capacity to do these giant things, you need to walk in like I am the president of this project. I am bringing stability, reliability. I am bringing reassurance, I am going to get this thing done.”

Spirit of the Time Zoomcast can be seen at https://zeitgeist-usa.com/zoomcast.