Every die hard Disney fan knows famed Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde. What immediately comes to mind is grand ideas, out of the box thinking, and of course, the earring. Joe Rohde has become famous for his huge over-stretched earring that hangs from his left ear, but what is the story behind the earring? We’ll look into not only what this earring represents, but also how he was able to keep it with Disney’s strict standards.
Who is Joe Rohde?
Joe Rohde is a former Disney Imagineer who was an integral part of Disney’s creative team. He was an avid traveler who brought his knowledge from around the globe to various places in the parks. At one point he was the Vice President of Creative for Walt Disney Imagineering.
While he is most famous for the creation of Animal Kingdom, (more on that later), he is also recognized for work on projects like Disney’s Aulani, Tower of Terror Tokyo DisneySea, Adventurers Club, Captain EO, the Norway Pavilion, New Fantasyland in the Magic Kingdom, the Mexican Pavilion, The American Adventure, and Imageworks.
Creator of Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Just like Walt Disney, Joe Rohde dreamed of having live animals in Disney World. He wanted a focus on conservation and protection. When brought to the executives of Disney, they denied the project stating that guests would find just looking at animals boring…
Joe Rohde didn’t give up. (Obviously.) When he returned to the Disney executives with the idea he brought a friend. Joe Rohde brought a live adult tiger to a board meeting. While he pitched the idea of the park, budgets, rides, etc., a live tiger was pacing behind the executives. He made his point that live animals are NOT boring!
Joe Rohde’s brainchild, Animal Kingdom, opened in 1998.
Story Behind Joe Rhode’s Earring
The iconic earring is really a collection of many metal hoops through a stretched ear lobe. Rohde explains that all of the earrings were gifts from many travelers around the world. When asked about them he said, “When you wear earrings like this,” he says, meaning many, “people just keep giving them to you. You have to wear them all.”
He went on to explain the story behind many of them. “I got this one in Zanzibar … this is from a Masai elder … this one is from Rajasthan, this is from South Africa … This is from a Masai elder…”
We just want to ask him… Isn’t it heavy? And how many times does he smack himself with them?!
How Did He Get Away With It?
Disney has maintained its visual reputation in the parks by rigid standards for dress and appearance by their Cast Members. Up until recently, Cast Members could not show tattoos, piercings, and some nail colors. Hairstyles for both men and women and even facial hair had a strict code to adhere to.
So, how is it that Joe Rohde was able to play such a key role in such a strict company?
It’s really quite funny. Joe Rohde was a “behind the scenes” employee who was never intended to be “on stage”, therefore, he had no dress code to adhere to. When the film crew came in to create the buzz about the new Animal Kingdom theme park, Joe Rohde was thrust before us. He says that the fact we know about the earring at all is a bit of a fluke.
Morgen (@startari0tinme) took to Twitter and asked:
@Joe_Rohde I have to ask because it nags at me every time I see it, was anything ever said in relation to Disney Look and your stretched ear? I only ask out of curiosity because I stressed about shrinking mine when I applied for an International Programme
My career was officially offstage so there was no “Look” code. My media notoriety is a bit of an anomaly so the fact that the earring is a public thing is accidental. For regular cast members, it’s a whole other rationale. We are/were meant to be unseen. Like shoemakers elves.
The New “Hidden Mickey”
We love that Joe Rohde committed himself so thoroughly to projects that he literally wanted to put a bit of himself into the projects. Anyone who has been to any Disney park loves to hunt for “hidden mickeys”, a clever collection of 3 circles placed by Imagineers as an unofficial scavenger hunt, and Joe Rohde wanted to create a bit of a legend of himself for people to find.
Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror
Joe Rohde was literally used to design the villain of the attraction. The portrait was created of a dapper man of the 1800s, named Harrison Hightower with a thick handlebar mustache, and you will notice a deliberate angle so the viewer cannot see the left ear! We especially love how Harrison Hightower is said to be a member of the Society of Explorers and Adventurers (S.E.A.)!
Land of Pandora
Avatar Flight of Passage
Joe Rohde put his mark all over the place in the land of Pandora! In the Avatar Flight of Passage queue, you will see his full handprint alongside the director and producer of Avatar, James Cameron and Jon Landau, respectively.
Satu’li Canteen is the place for a quick bite that shows off the progress made on the planet of Pandora showing the budding relationship between humans and the Na’vi. Take a closer look at those photos in the restaurant near the check out. Notice the man with the earring next to a Na’vi?
FUN FACT: Joe Rohde didn’t just put his face on the wall, he put a family recipe on the menu! The famed cheeseburger pods are actually created with a family recipe!
Walk on over to Pongu Pongu in Pandora to grab a Night Blossom and a pongu lumpia. If you look up, you will see dog tags of the explorers who embarked in Pandora to adventure this new world. You guessed it – Joe Rohde is on one of the tags. Can you find it?
Expedition Everest: Legends of the Forbidden Mountain
According to the people of the internet, the artistic depiction of the Yeti in the queue and in a mural on the attraction is actually based on Joe Rohde. The only portions of the portrait where we can see likeness is in the strong, bushy eyebrow, and the receding hairline. To us, it seems like a stretch…
But if you are open minded, it could look like him. If you squint your eyes, maybe. It makes sense that the creative imagineers would use Rohde as a muse for various things around the park, since he was the visionary in charge of it all.
Joe Rohde Merchandise
Are you a huge fan of Joe Rohde and Disney Imagineering? Disney actually created a special set of Mickey ears designed after the famous Imagineer. These ears are designed to look like a classic leather pilot helmet, also seen as the symbol of an explorer. (Remember Carl and Ellie from UP?) This adorable ear hat has furry goggles on the front and the ears show a compass. These ears just scream explorer, and isn’t that what Joe Rohde is?
Funny enough, there is no earring on the left ear! I guess that was just too far for Mickey.
Joe Rohde’s Earrings in Space!
Joe Rohde retired from Disney in early 2021, but soon discovered that retirement wasn’t really for him. He took a new job with Virgin Galactic soon after. The owner of Virgin, Richard Branson, took an historic trip to space and Rohde wanted to send his new boss with a few items.
Joe Rohde shared about it on his Instagram:
“Some things that went to space. My late father-in-law’s company tie clasp, from the aerospace company, Abex. Several ancient beads, some of which are over 2000 years old. A replica of a Celtic spiral brooch, which just reminded me of galactic sorts of things and because I wear it instead of a tie when I dress up. (A tie makes me look like an old hippie on a job interview) My Explorers Club lapel pin. And, just to be safe… Several earrings. Because I lose them. I am now wearing the one with the beads in it. So if you ever find yourself in a hotel room near an airport and see this beaded earring on the floor… Keep it. It went to outer space. I can make another one. Ok”
Joe Rohde may be gone from Disney, but his legacy will remain in the parks for generations to come!
Where is Joe Rohde Now
Joe Rohde retired from the Disney Company in early 2021. He dedicated 40 years of his life to creativity and storytelling at the Walt Disney Company, contributing to major projects in 4 different locations. It’s hard to imagine Walt Disney World without Animal Kingdom, and we know he’s not done yet. His creative genius will be entertaining the masses for generations.
I am a mother of three that has refused to grow up. Adulting is for the birds, so I go to Disney World every chance I get for that magical escape from reality. I believe that Haunted Mansion is the best ride in all of the Disney Parks, and I am fervently in team Happily Ever After for fireworks spectaculars, (sorry, not sorry, Enchanted). Finally, I hope I never grow tired of skipping down Main Street, USA, and my dream come true would be “friends with” the Fairy Godmother in my old age.