Imagineer Joe Rohde hosts virtual tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom

Joe Rohde walks with James Cameron and Tom Staggs (among others)

If you’ve ever wanted to have a personal tour of Disney’s Animal Kingdom with the Imagineer who has been at the very heart of its creation and growth since the very beginning, today is your lucky day. Walt Disney Imagineering’s Joe Rohde has taken to instagram with photos from his own archive of the park to give us insight into how he sees the park.

Here are the first two posts along with a couple excerpts from Joe’s writing:

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Well. It doesn’t look like we are meeting up at Disney’s Animal Kingdom real soon, so how about a tour of my personal photos of the park. If you haven’t been to the park, or ever heard of it (which is definitely a thing on the West Coast) perhaps this will help people understand what it is. Maybe even convince some skeptics to try it out. If you have been there, it might just be more inside knowledge. So. In the middle of the park is the centerpiece and icon. The Tree of Life. Named for the old fashioned 19th century diagram of interconnected spread of life. Because the park is dedicated to the themes of animals and their relationships to humans,(good and bad) we needed a non-architectural icon…something “natural.” Since nature is everywhere anyway, we also need to signify that this place is exceptional..in some way “magical.” Thus..a strange tree. A tree whose body disappears under patient observation to become nothing but animals. A metaphor for the rewards nature can provide to the careful observer. But since we all know it has been made..it is a work of arty…it also signifies the intent to communicate..to tell a story. In fact, the Tree promises two things. 1. This place is a story place about animals. 2.This place is a designed place full of virtuoso accomplishments. (See Aristotle’s essay on Mimesis.)

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

“Well. It doesn’t look like we are meeting up at Disney’s Animal Kingdom real soon, so how about a tour of my personal photos of the park. If you haven’t been to the park, or ever heard of it (which is definitely a thing on the West Coast) perhaps this will help people understand what it is. Maybe even convince some skeptics to try it out. If you have been there, it might just be more inside knowledge.”

“So. In the middle of the park is the centerpiece and icon. The Tree of Life. Named for the old fashioned 19th century diagram of interconnected spread of life. Because the park is dedicated to the themes of animals and their relationships to humans,(good and bad) we needed a non-architectural icon…something “natural.” Since nature is everywhere anyway, we also need to signify that this place is exceptional..in some way “magical.” Thus..a strange tree.”

(be sure to read the rest of the post)

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Let’s stay with the Tree for a moment. If you pay attention to most of Disney’s Animal Kingdom You’ll see that when you come up on animals, it is usually in the context of some story. In Africa that story ultimately reflects upon the question of resources, like ivory and rhino horn. Asia is chiefly concerned with habitat loss and habitat use and how animals and humans can live side-by-side. I Pandora with pollution. So, what is going on in front of the Tree? When we originally chose animals just around the tree, we chose them for their physical diversity, as demonstrations of the vast differences in shape as animals adapt to their various ecosystems. Kangaroos, porcupines, flamingos, macaws. Each of these animals has strikingly unique adaptations. A marsupial deer with the body of a giant hare. A rodent with really pokey hair. A bird with an upside down mouth. A giant parrot with nutcracker jaws. Something is at wrk here. A principal of life. These are observations which can be made but are not required. Because this is not an educational facility per se, we want people to pursue ideas at their own pace. As they might do in nature. My two boys to go walk yesterday in the nearby mountains… They noticed a number of red salamanders in the streams. That’s because they were paying attention, and so they noticed. I’m sure others walked right by. Animal Kingdom is a bit like that. It’s there for you with a lot of content, a lot of meaning, and a lot of research-based accuracy. You just have to look and ask.

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“When we originally chose animals just around the tree, we chose them for their physical diversity, as demonstrations of the vast differences in shape as animals adapt to their various ecosystems. Kangaroos, porcupines, flamingos, macaws. Each of these animals has strikingly unique adaptations. A marsupial deer with the body of a giant hare. A rodent with really pokey hair. A bird with an upside down mouth. A giant parrot with nutcracker jaws. Something is at [work] here. A principal of life.”

Here are a few similar posts from the past:

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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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“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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When we designed Pandora, the World of Avatar, we weren’t just interested in presenting a landscape… We’re trying to present ecologies, however artificial they may be. This is a small example. In the middle of this pond are these weird Nautilus looking things that float around shooting water up into the air. Below the water they have tentacles. The idea was that they shoot their prey out of the sky and then devour it in the water. A hunting technical like this could be a little bit inefficient, and anything that gets devoured leaves little bit behind. So the edge of the pond has these other critters, who are more or less scavengers. Their bodies were based on a 3D scan of a coconut crab that was then digitally manipulated into some other kind of critter. It’s not much, but it’s a system. And animals live inside systems. They’re not like a cup that we can pick up off the table and put back down. They are more like the grain in the wood of the table… If you move the grain in the wood, the wood is gonna fall apart. Animals are like that

A post shared by Joe Rohde (@joerohde) on

“When we designed Pandora, the World of Avatar, we weren’t just interested in presenting a landscape… We’re trying to present ecologies, however artificial they may be. This is a small example. In the middle of this pond are these weird Nautilus looking things that float around shooting water up into the air. Below the water they have tentacles. The idea was that they shoot their prey out of the sky and then devour it in the water. A hunting technical like this could be a little bit inefficient, and anything that gets devoured leaves little bit behind. So the edge of the pond has these other critters, who are more or less scavengers.”

I can’t recommend the entirety of Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde’s instagram enough. It’s a real masterclass for a different way of seeing the world. One that looks at the roots of history and its intersection with art then explains their influence on the world today. Crucial knowledge for anyone who wants to add more layers and depth to their love of Disney’s theme parks or just be a better human being.

Oh yeah, you might just learn something about Lighthouse Point, the new project he’s working on for Disney Cruise Line.

Thanks Joe!