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The Man, the Myth, the Legend: Joe Rohde's Best Animal Kingdom-Inspired Instagram Posts of 2020

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Joe Rohde is arguably the greatest Imagineer of his generation. Sure he's the proud owner of the most famous earring of all-time, but he's also responsible for so much that we know and love around the Disney parks, he's worked on everything from the immersive and detailed lands of Animal Kingdom, to the relaxing getaway resort Aulani in Hawaii, to the futuristic and adventurous Guardians of the Galaxy - Mission: Breakout! attraction at Disney California Adventure, to his current project Lighthouse Point - Disney Cruise Line’s second tropical destination in The Bahamas. The thing about Joe is that everything he does seems to turn out above and beyond expectations. His work is thought-provoking and it leaves guests wondering "how did they do that". Everything he does has meaning and, if you follow him on Instagram, he's usually more than willing to share those meanings in their entirety.

Joe's Instagram account offers a sneak peek into his mind. He shares wildly in-depth looks at various projects around Disney World, but mostly his beloved project Animal Kingdom. As of the time of posting this article, Joe has 4,266 Instagram Posts, most being about the Disney Parks and their creations in some way, however, some being non-Disney related stories that he's come across in his travels or conservation efforts, as well as art history and appreciation for other cultures around the world. There are countless hours of material to read straight from Joe's mind and we highly recommend going through them all. But, for our Earth Day article, we decided to pull some of his best Animal Kingdom posts from 2020 and compile them into one central place. Let's get started and take a dive into Joe's mind.


Joe on the Restaurant-osaurus designs inspired by Thomas Molesworth.

The Lost Bros Save Our Earth Tee
The Lost Bros x The Pixie Traveler Greetings From The Big Blue Tee

Joe on getting all the people in India and beyond who had contributed to the conservation of the endangered Indian Rhino to sign a release permitting Disney to use their likeness on an art project inspired by Vik Muniz.

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Vik Muniz at the Sarasota Art Museum. If you don’t know Vik Muniz you should. His work is very clever and ironic. He works with found materials to create images that are often references to other images, reproductions of great works of art made from collected piles of junk, colorful toy army men, salt, beans, like that. There’s all kinds of themes in these images: about consumerism, waste, the proliferation of objects, the loss of meaning in objects as they proliferate, recovered meaning by the reassembly of objects etc. I love his work. But what struck me in this case was a legal question… These images are composed of what appeared to be randomly collected family photos of all kinds of people. I have a strong suspicion that these people are not all relatives of Vik Muniz, and suspect that they did not all sign waivers and releases for the use of their likeness. I’m actually curious if fine artist get a pass on this. Let us imagine that in the context of Disney’s Animal Kingdom we wanted to create a conservation monument that was a stylistic quotation of Muniz...Say, for example, an endangered Indian Rhino composed of the faces and bodies of all the people in India and beyond who have contributed to the conservation and protection of said rhino. We would have to find each of those people and get each of them to sign a release permitting us to use their likeness. I actually don’t know the answer to this question, but are works of fine art excluded from this legal requirement? If I wanted to go to the junk store and just buy piles of discarded old family photographs, could I then use those photographs in the creation of works of art from which I derived benefit and profit with no obligation to the people represented in the photographs? Somebody out there must know the answer to this. This is not to take anything away from the spectacular artwork, which I love, but I am actually curious and I don’t know the answer and a quick Internet search of Muniz did not reveal any prominent debate around this issue. So, surely the world is full of people more learned than myself who can instruct me.

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Joe on designing Pandora, the World of Avatar and trying to present ecologies, however artificial they may be.

Joe on how Disney’s Animal Kingdom is about living things, and living things live inside time. So, in many little places around the park you can see time passing. (Exemplified by a stone carving of a 1/2 face of a tiger in Animal Kingdom)

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If you look closely you can see that this was once 1/2 of the face of a tiger. The style is based on Balinese and Javanese traditional stone carving, so the eye and the structure behind the eyes are very pronounced, almost like a cylinder. But once you find the cylindrical Eye-shaft then you can find the mouth and the teeth and a nostril. When it was first placed here In 1998 or 99, it was brand new and covered in carving. But it is carved in a traditional Balinese Stone called Paras. Paras is not much more than solidified pumice. It erodes very quickly, making this carving look quite ancient. Eventually it will erode away until it resembles nothing at all. Usually in a theme park every attempt is made to conceal the passage of time. Fantasy parks are meant to be outside of the tumultuous cycle of history, protected by a magic berm. But Disney’s Animal Kingdom is about living things, and living things live inside time. And so, in many little places around the park you can see time passing. Trees grow, Pieces of carved wood get old and disappear, statues erode. And of course the animals, the very reason for the park itself, they also are bound by the cycle of time. We are in the second and third generations of animals in some cases. This is a place of life, and life is expressed by change. Of course, it is a place of entertainment, and you are welcome to come as often as you like. However, you must assume that it may not be exactly the place you saw before, that while it might offer you new adventures, it also offers bittersweet reminders that the life we share with all living creatures is brief, fragile, and precious. So while life passes, let us all make sure it does not pass us by...at least, not here. If you come to Disney’s Animal Kingdom Make your day go slow, savor little moments, find hidden places, search for obscure details, and watch the animals for a long time. They are infinitely fascinating, surprising, and memorable. Nothing we can do, not the biggest ride system, The fanciest architectural ornamentation,nor the greatest special-effects can compare to the exhilaration you can feel when the gibbons begin to sing.

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Joe on the architectural brackets in the Flame Tree Grill dining garden and how each dining pavilion is dedicated to a different predator/prey relationship.

Joe on the characterization of Dr.Stevens and using the infamous "And, uh, fly" line.

Joe on the Ruined Shrine and the tree's roots being partially real and partially carved.

Joe on the Tree of Life and how it's supposed to reward the same kind of patient exploration as one would use to explore the world of nature. The more you look, the more you see.

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This particular detail might have been wiped out in a recent expansion. I didn’t check when I went to review the new work. But it is one of the most subtle nuanced versions of the animals in front of the Tree of Life at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The tree is not just a symbol of nature and all of its diverse beauty. It’s actually supposed to reward the same kind of patient exploration as one would use to explore the world of nature. That is to say the more you look, the more you see. It’s not always easy convincing people to slow down and use their senses, especially in a venue like a theme park, where there are multiple pressures to speed up and consume quickly. ..but, I think it’s safe to say that one of the properties of a theme park is that it is a kind of park, and being a park, it should reward leisure, relaxation, and calm. If not everywhere, at least in certain select areas, where one can pull out from the action and enjoy. It seems trivial, but it’s exactly this kind of behavior which has become very rare in our society, and while it seems like it shouldn’t be something you have to pay for… People don’t do it unless they perceive some additional value, some special cachet. The truth is there’s tree bark on a tree somewhere near you, and there are images in that tree bark right now. And you could walk down the block or into your backyard with your own child and look at that tree bark and try to find those images. Critics think the theme parks are a substitute for the personal imagination and that therefore they make us weaker in our own imaginations. But I think they’re a training ground for the Imagination...A training ground for times like this, when we cannot resort to the theme park and we must use our own imaginations to make the world around us turn magical.

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Joe on the Tree of Life.

Joe on convincing people Animal Kingdom was unlike any other theme park.

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Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Black-and-white photograph by landscape designer Paul Comstock right around the time we opened. The originals are beautiful… This was just photographed off the wall of my kitchen. We are going to back up for a second to the entry of the park, which we called the Oasis Gardens. What is going on here? There is, in a certain sense… Nothing there. First, you have to recall that when we opened the park, there was no other theme park like it. That’s creatively interesting and all, but what about guests? How do they know what to expect? So… our first question was “How do we signify to you that this park is not like another parks.” We needed to reset expectations, otherwise the entire day would be one big frustration. That can’t be just signs and labels because A. Show don’t Tell. B. “Nobody reads.” The first thing you notice is not a presence, but an absence. What is not there is a human-based, urban, architectural environment. Instead there is a forest with two paths. Not to put too fine a point on the Robert Frostiness of this, but of course, we want you to take the path less traveled by, because that will make all the difference. Having more than one path is a simple metaphor for adventure… Even if nothing happens on the path you take… There’s always the mystery of that other path. Now that the park is established the value of this opening statement isn’t quite what it used to be… It was quite a shock when it opened. Now it’s just the opening of the park. To be honest, the economic pressures of a day in the park make it very hard for people to slow down and pay attention here, which is a shame… Because it’s a beautiful, beautiful environment full of little secret surprises… And there are cool animals, here and there. You cannot believe the number of versions of a park entry sequence we went through before we landed on this one… Everything from empty zoo cages with their doors standing open, to a kind of 1960s organic hobbitish Village Trail. But this forest does the job. You are in a place about nature, and the priorities of nature… But, you, being human, are also there… So it must be about you too.

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Joe explains the dining gardens at Flame Tree Barbecue.

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We cannot leave the middle of the park without reflecting on one of my favorite places, the dining gardens of Flame Tree Barbecue. These have a very weird origin. Early in design of the park there was a shuffle of programming. The Tree originally had a restaurant under it with a view of the river. The Flame Tree location was an amphitheater. We decided to put a bigger show under the Tree so we abandoned the amphitheater and moved the restaurant to the amphitheater location. Because this happened after our landscape design was pretty well defined, we had to fit the restaurant into the amphitheater shape. That could have been a design problem, but it ended up creating a really wonderful space. It’s loosely inspired by some of the places we visited in Bali...little pavilions surrounding a reflecting pond. I do think that powerful emotions can be encoded in pure form and somehow this arrangement of buildings, water, trees, and sculptures evokes similar feelings of serenity and gentleness as a real Balinese garden. The architectural ornamentation is inspired by colorful folk art mainly Oaxacan carvings, Peruvian Moche ceramics, and American folk art carvings...not Balinese at all. But the ensemble works somehow to make a very restful meditative space. If you haven’t hung out there it’s worth a visit. Obviously right in the middle of lunchtime it’s busy, but in off hours you could be all alone there.

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Joe on Harambe, Port of East Africa.

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I suppose we should start out land tour with Harambe, Port of East Africa. None of our lands are supposed to be geopolitically real like say, Kenya. Harambe looks a lot like Lamu in Kenya, but not in a replicative way, and there are substantial stylistic departures. It’s more like a smash-up of Lamu-Kenya and Arusha-Tanzania. Both are a kind of mercantile border town, as is Harambe. The word Harambe means “let’s work together or pull together.” Implicitly on behalf of wildlife. What can we read in this environment? Clearly multiple levels of history and conquest, as with Lamu. There’s a Portuguese fort, some remnants of Omani reign, a British Colonial era, and Independence in 1961. Must be a valuable place. The building are old and weathered, but not intended to look neglected, and there’s lots of evidence of reutilization and upcycling...from economic stress? So people are striving here. I mean, the municipal logo is a Maasai shield and an industrial gear with the word”enterprise.” We are going on Safari. We are not going into the wilds of Africa (colonialist concept btw) but into Harambe Wildlife Reserve, a presumptive government entity. We are clients of a commercial entity Kilimanjaro Safaris...I mean, the attraction marquee is just a billboard at the edge of town. Now, here’s why that’s all relevant. In such a palpably commercial place, where people are clearly striving to get ahead, what is the value of elephants vs elephant ivory and rhinos vs rhino horn? This is what wildlife conservation is… A value equation. And the value at Disney’s Animal Kingdom is The intrinsic Value of Nature as supreme and untradeable. However subtle and nuanced, that is conflict, which drives narrative.

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Joe on Kilimanjaro Safaris.

Joe on the drinkwallah beverage merchant in Africa.

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Drinkwallah is the name of the little building just to the right as you cross the bridge in Asia. Wallah is a term from India...(Respelled and probably re-pronounced by British people)…it more or less means a person who is in charge of things or sells things. So a drinkwallah is a beverage merchant. It does not take a perceptual genius to see that the spot is associated with Coca-Cola. We were designing Drinkwallah during the last days of a global phenomenon that is mainly gone now, when corporations used to translate their logos and product names into the script and language of the country where they were selling stuff… So, all over the world there were Coke products written in all these interesting languages and scripts. Devanagari for example which is what a lot of Indian and Tibetan scripts are based on. Anyway vestiges of that era are still here at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Meanwhile Coke and many others changed their policies to just write everything in English worldwide. But in Drinkwallah are vintage Coke bottles inside on the shelf with the word Coca-Cola written in ?Nepali? Also, this building has one of the most authentic Roofs in our little Asia. Very similar to the way roofs are tiled all over Nepal. The building is still a hybrid, not Nepalese, nor Indonesian but a blend. Drinkwallah and the surrounding environment has a nice vibe about it, very similar to lazing by the side of some river canyon in Bali or Nepal somewhere. There are some photographs on the wall inside… (My recollection is they badly need replacing)… But they are photographs taken by myself on my trips to the Himalayas. One of them is a shot of porters hired by my mountaineer friends resting under a tree, watching as the rest of the expedition approaches… That was in the Buri Gandaki River in Nepal in 1989. I think this area it is one of the little hidden treasures of the park.

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Joe talks about the Expedition Everest ride.

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The ride itself. There are so many things that could be said about this ride, but the most instructive is the influence of theme on physics. This attraction is built around a roller coaster. There’s no way to get around it… It is a roller coaster. A roller coaster is an investment in the physics of potential and kinetic energy. Basically, one buys gravitational potential energy by going up and spends kinetic energy going down. Logically, this means that peak spending of energy happens early in the sequence and by the end of the ride, the energy is almost entirely spent. Without the additional influence of theme and story that is what one would do… That is logical. However this is a story with the theme. So the pattern of energy utilization is very strange. For a coaster. We leave the station and kind of Cruise through a landscape for a while, Only beginning our climb after that. At the top of the climb, We do not drop… Instead we dip a little bit and rise again to where we stop. By now half of the ride is over. We have spent very little energy at all. We have a huge energy fund for the second half of the ride. This is the moment where, spoiler, we begin to drop backwards… Point number two. When we built this ride there was no such thing as a coaster that went backwards onto a different set of tracks. They were coasters that went backwards but they went back where they came from. No one in the industry had felt the need to build a track switch that could handle a fast-moving loaded train. Because that was a story driven need not a physics driven need. All of that means that the fastest most exciting part of this ride is the last part of the ride and instead of coming into the station exhausted, slow, at the tail end of an energy investment… The train comes in fast and hot. Which means people leave with the last impression that is very exciting. Now, we all know there is a yeti in there somewhere… But everything I’m talking about would be obvious to you if you could not see. It is entirely a kinesthetic analysis.

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Joe on the infamous backstory of Dinoland USA.

Joe on the world of Pandora.

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Pandora is one of the many moons of Polyphemus, which is a planet, presumably among other planets, some, with their own moons, orbiting Alpha Centauri, a star. It is hard to imagine how bizarrely eccentric the movement of these heavenly bodies would look from a moon like that. All of our astrology is based on the observation of the strange movement of heavenly bodies from earth, a planet. Something similar but weirder must exist on Pandora. These markings in the cave of the queue for Flight of Passage are basically astrological images of Polyphemus and other moons as heavenly personalities in a family. In the film references, Polyphemus is rendered with an Eye like Jupiter … And so we show Polyphemus either as a giant eye or a cyclopean person, a mother, of a family. We presume that one of the moons has a very eccentric orbit and is rendered as a primate with a tail. Then, there are stars and planets named for certain Pandoran creatures which have been given symbols to represent them. One of these images shows the hammerhead planet in conjunction with a star. Another shows Polyphemus linked to her moons by umbilical lines. Then there is a Na’vi hand with a songcord draped beneath it to indicate a specific person who has undertaken the challenge. The song cord is a autobiographical piece of jewelry worn by the Na’vi. There is no cave in the movie, we made it up in collaboration with the filmmakers because we we needed it for several reasons. To bridge the distance from the land to the building. To create shade. And to create a sense of ceremony before the real business of loading a. Attraction begins. Presumably we all get the pun of Flight of Passage relating to a rite of passage. We actually structured the ride on the arc of real rites of passage… Disorientation, challenge, revelation, and Release.

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Ok, there's a lot to unpack there. That was a LOT of information and the crazy part is that's only about half of Joe's Animal Kingdom Instagram posts in 2020 alone. Joe recently shared a whole walkthrough tour of Disney's Animal Kingdom via Instagram which we can't recommend reading in it's entirety enough. There's so much insight and knowledge to be found throughout Rohde's teachings and posts, especially for anyone studying or interested in themed entertainment or art history.

If one thing is clear, it's that Animal Kingdom truly is unlike any other theme park in the world. The attention to detail and the revolutionary design and research that went into creating the park is unrivaled and proves that Joe Rohde truly is a master of his craft.

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