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Disney World News: Iconic Imagineer Retires, EPCOT Overhaul Update, Hotel Construction

We’re back with another Walt Disney World news & rumor round-up. This one covers the retirement of a celebrity Imagineer, the latest on scope & scale cutbacks to EPCOT’s overhaul, progress on the entrance royal makeovers, new hotel tower construction, and more.

Let’s start with EPCOT. Following last week’s presentation about the “Magic of Possibility,” Walt Disney World issued a new press release about the park’s “historic transformation.” A few things stand out from this. First, what is not mentioned at all. That includes projects were already know were “postponed” indefinitely (read: cancelled), like the Mary Poppins attraction and Spaceship Earth reimagining.

To our surprise, the Play Pavilion also is not mentioned, suggesting it might’ve been cut from the plans. We had assumed the Play Pavilion was safe, both because work on the exterior has continued, and since the project was pretty far along pre-closure. It’s entirely possible that the omission is an oversight, or that Walt Disney World isn’t quite sure how to handle a very “hands on” attraction at a time when all such other experiences in the parks are currently closed. Some other surprises include what is mentioned…

The big one there is Moana’s Journey of Water, which will partly replace the section of Innoventions that’s still standing. Not that we expected this interactive walk-through to be cancelled, but we figured its fate was potentially still up in the air until new plans for Future World’s core were finalized. (So perhaps that has now happened?)

The press release essentially just rehashes what we already knew about this attraction, calling it a lush exploration trail with magical, living water. “Just like Moana’s friend the ocean, water will have a personality of its own, helping guests learn how to protect the natural water cycle in a fun and engaging way.”

Some other noteworthy info concerns World Celebration. This is also known as the Central Spine Redesign, which is rumored to be back at the drawing board for scope and scale cutbacks. However, the press release notes that Dreamers Point and its statue of Walt Disney is still a thing. No surprise there, as a Walt Disney statue is something with minimal cost that gets fans salivating.

Additionally, “beautiful natural environments and global design elements filled with Disney magic and surprises, including a story fountain celebrating the power and music of iconic Disney storytelling.” Our expectation is that this area remains lush, but loses some of the engaging and eye-catching features. (Trees are cheaper!)

The press release continues: “Surrounding this enchanted garden will be new retail and dining locations, along with a newly reimagined festival area that will be home to ever-changing events in a unique new environment.”

Bad news for the three-level Festival Center, which is all but dead at this point. Also not a surprise, since Walt Disney World previously stated that the company will “take a different approach” with the new Festival Center. Still, we were hoping for something scaled-back but still architecturally-ambitious, and not just a “festival area.” Here’s hoping they don’t throw down mulch & soil, add some food booths, and call it a day.

Sticking with the EPCOT area, we have a construction update on the Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, the 349 room tower being added to the Swan & Dolphin Resorts. This 14-story hotel is currently under construction and scheduled to open Summer 2021.

Every time we head down Epcot Resorts Blvd. or World Drive, we see crews actively working on this, and progress is visible from week to week. Despite low occupancy at the Swan & Dolphin right now and significant layoffs from the properties, it would seem the hotelier is confident of a rebound by next summer. Here’s hoping they’re right!

Next, another progress report on the Royal Makeover of the Walt Disney World entrance gateways. This is the one on Western Way, which is furthest along and will probably wrap up within the next couple of days. We seldom drive through the others, but know they’re not this close to being completed.

A lot of you aren’t thrilled by this redesign, thinking it looks bland or generic as compared to the prior style. This is definitely a less is more look. It’s also better. When you’re only passing through this gateway infrequently and on vacation, your brain might “paint over” its blemishes.

We drive through this gateway every single day. Literally any time we leave the house, whether to visit Walt Disney World or not. The old one was looking really worse for wear–like it had seen better days. This one really pops, especially when the sun is hitting it and there are some puffy clouds behind it. Which, given that this is Florida, is often how it looks!

Finally, legendary Imagineer Joe Rohde announced that he’s retiring from his position with the Walt Disney Company effective January 4, 2021. Rohde has had a 40 year career with Walt Disney Imagineering, beginning as a model designer during the planning of EPCOT Center.

Rohde followed that project with a slew of now-extinct cult classic offerings, including the Adventurers Club at Pleasure Island, Maelstrom in the Norway Pavilion, and Captain EO. Following that, Rohde rose to prominence during the Eisner era as the mastermind behind the planning and development of Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

More recently, Rohde’s portfolio has been one hit after another, with Expedition Everest and Pandora – World of Avatar at Animal Kingdom, the Aulani Disney Vacation Club Resort in Hawaii, Villages Nature Paris Eco-Resort, and even the Guardians of the Galaxy: Mission Breakout reimagining at Disney California Adventure.

While we’re hardly fans of that last one, it proved Rohde could make lemonade out of lemons and work within tight parameters. Rohde has been an Imagineering fan-favorite thanks in small part to his eccentricities, but more so because he’s truly passionate about themed design and his craft, and doesn’t condescend or use PR-speak. This is borne out in the thought-provoking presentations he delivers, and his simultaneously blunt and esoteric social media presence.

Rohde issued a statement about his retirement on Instagram:

I’m sure by now many of you have come across the news that I am retiring from Walt Disney Imagineering. It has been 40 years since I stepped foot in the door at age 25, not knowing anything about theme parks, Disney, or what it meant to work for a big company. Every day of my life since then has been a learning experience.

I’m very glad to have had that opportunity, and proud of the work that has been done, not just by me, but by all my fellow Imagineers, and especially those who worked by my side over the decades. But 40 years is a long time, and this strange quiet time seems like a great opportunity to slip away without too much disruption.

If I wait, I will once again be in the middle of another huge project and by the time that is done, I would be truly old. I’m not that old yet and there are things I want to do that cannot be done here. We encourage a culture of storytellers, not just amongst ourselves but among our guests and our fans, and because of this, there is a strong temptation to take this moment and turn it into a story. But what story?

I think it’s a coming of age story. I started at Disney as a child, and I learned almost all my life lessons there, developed my confidence, recognized my skills and weaknesses, and went on to work with both… and do what could be done. I could stay forever, but that is like remaining in another kind of womb. I want to see what a grown man might be able to do on his own.

This site here is not really for Disney. It’s for us. I imagine that there are many of you who will be sad that I will no longer be a daily part of the Disney company, and there will be some of you who will drift away and no longer follow my ruminations because they feel they aren’t relevant. But I will still be here. And I will still be thinking about things, and doing things, and talking about things… Because that’s kind of what I do.

I mentioned in my departure note and I will mention here again the tremendous debt that I owe to our guests and our fans who have been so generous. Working as an Imagineer has made me a good designer, but it is all of you who have made me a better person.

Walt Disney Imagineering President Bob Weis also shared a statement:

Joe Rohde is a real life adventurer—in life, in art, and in work. Whether trekking across the mountains of Mongolia on an expedition to raise awareness for snow leopard conservation, or leading project teams from Animal Kingdom to Aulani to Pandora, Joe fully embodies the true spirit of adventure and exploration. He approaches these experiences, not as a tourist, but with curiosity, respect, and purpose. ⁣⁣
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Joe has committed forty years to bringing dynamic, inventive, and diverse projects to Disney parks. While he is widely renowned for his unmatched expertise across numerous creative disciplines, he’s also an expert in every facet of leading and managing our projects, from setting the vision to feasibility, design and execution. His unyielding commitment to excellence across all aspects of projects, and his demand for authenticity and including diverse, indigenous cultures in design and production, are hallmarks of his projects and what differentiate them from all others.⁣⁣
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Today, Joe announced his plans to retire from the company, and while I respect and accept his decision, I know he will remain part of our Imagineering family, a mentor to our current and future generation, and certainly the best example to our worldwide audience of what it is to be an Imagineer.

Obviously, we wish Mr. Rohde the best in his future endeavors and look forward to following whatever that might entail on social media. No matter what the topic, his perspective is invaluable and thought-provoking. His retirement is a huge loss for Imagineering and Disney fans everywhere, and he leaves some Na’vi sized shoes to fill.

Beyond that, Rohde’s retirement leaves a few unanswered questions. For one, what’s happening with the Lighthouse Point Bahamas project for Disney Cruise Line that he was helming. This is (was?) a very controversial development, and Rohde was undoubtedly chosen because he’s Disney’s best ambassador when it comes to conservation and building in ways that are respectful to other cultures.

Is Rohde’s retirement a sign that Lighthouse Point is being abandoned? Between the devastating effects of the ongoing cruise industry shutdown and a renewed focus on the ills of over-tourism during said shutdown, it would not be a surprise to see Disney quietly back away from the project. On the other hand, Disney has plowed through all past protests over Lighthouse Point, so perhaps the company doesn’t feel it needs Rohde to “sell” Lighthouse Point anymore.

The other question is who’s left at Imagineering?! Between recent retirements of several high profile creatives and the layoff of over 400 Imagineers, it would seem the creative department is now pretty lean. Most of the old guard with strong connections to Walt Disney Imagineering’s historic legacy are gone. Some of the new public faces–including those in high positions–don’t have many projects on their resumes.

To be sure, there are no doubt many highly talented individuals still working in Glendale and Imagineering’s other offices. It’s also not the worst thing for fresh faces with new ideas and ways of doing things to be given a chance at innovating. As with Walt Disney World, it’s just a little disconcerting how much institutional knowledge Walt Disney Imagineering has lost in the last several months (even the last several years). It also doesn’t exactly bode well for the development cycle and what’s on the horizon in the decade to come. We already knew that not many new projects would be started at Walt Disney World or Disneyland anytime soon, but the downsizing at Imagineering only further reinforces that.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Thoughts on any of this Walt Disney World news? What do you think of the hotel construction or royal makeover of the entrance archways? Surprised by Joe Rohde’s retirement? Concerned about the future of projects at Walt Disney World and beyond? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!


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