Former Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde named Virgin Galactic “Experience Architect”

Joe Rohde
Joe Rohde (courtesy Virgin Galactic)

Virgin Galactic Holdings is one of many companies competing for the lucrative space tourism market. When you’re selling space tourism, your customers are some of the wealthiest clients on the planet. These clients are paying for an experience they can’t get anywhere else. Logically, it would be a very good idea to bring on one of Disney’s top Imagineers to design the experience portion of the trip.

Enter Joe Rohde. The fan-favorite Imagineer recently retired from his role at Walt Disney Imagineering. Some of his greatest hits are Disney’s Animal Kingdom (yes, the entire park was his baby), Aulani (Disney’s luxury resort in Hawaii), and Pandora – the World of Avatar. He’s a deep thinker and a world traveler who knows how to tell a carefully crafted story in a real world setting better than pretty much anyone on the planet.

Joe Rohde gives James Cameron a tour of Disney's Animal Kingdom
Joe Rohde walks with James Cameron and Tom Staggs (among others)

With Virgin Galactic, the customer may be paying for an off-planet experience, but a large share of the time will be spent on-planet preparing for the adventure. Rohde will be tasked with stimulating and guiding the imagination of customers and while anchoring the experience to meaning and purpose.

According to the company, Joe recently visited New Mexico for the first time for a quick interview as he starts a new journey to develop the experience that thousands of aspiring astronauts and enthusiasts will come to enjoy in the future.

“I spent 40 years with Walt Disney Imagineering and that word, ‘Imagineering,’ refers to the fusion of imagination and engineering,” said Rohde. “This means I’ve come from a tradition where if you are imagining something, you are imagining that thing is going to be made real.

“That’s also been going on here at Virgin Galactic, and I’m delighted to be joining at this incredible moment in time when it is about to blossom into public awareness.”

About the experience he will help design, Rohde said, “This is one of the most profound things that can happen to you. To go beyond the reaches of the earth, to space, and look back down at it. It’s a spectacularly unique opportunity with huge potential for transformational change in a person…What Virgin Galactic is doing, in democratizing space travel, has reached a moment where it is about to enter history. It’s happening right here in New Mexico, and it’s very rare to be a person who gets to be in the place, at the time, that history begins.’’

Michael Colglazier, who joined Virgin Galactic as CEO in 2020 (and himself a longtime Disney theme park executive) said of Rohde’s addition to the team, “As soon as I joined Virgin Galactic, I knew there was one person we just had to work with to help shape the incredible experience we are developing – and that person was Joe Rohde.”

“Joe has a methodology that is unique, inspired, and truly effective,” continued Colglazier. “His track record for keeping authenticity central to the design and creating deeply transformative experiences aligns perfectly with our mission. I couldn’t be more pleased to see Joe choose Virgin Galactic for his first encore!’’

Virgin Galactic is currently focused on a goal of putting space tourists on the International Space Station in the near future. The company has the backing of Richard Branson, but has faced a few setbacks, including having to push back some recent test flights.

If anyone has a plus one for their next Virgin Galactic flight, I’d love to see what Joe Rohde brings to the show.

Recommended: Imagineer Joe Rohde discusses the meaning of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

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