This past weekend at the historic Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., Walt Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde was awarded the Lowell Thomas Award by the Explorers Club. Rohde stood among several of the greatest living explorers of our time in receiving this prestigious award.
Who is Joe Rohde?
Joe Rohde is the Senior Vice President Creative at Walt Disney Imagineering. He led the way in conceptualizing, designing, and producing Disney’s Animal Kingdom. That includes every land and attraction up through the creation of Pandora: The World of Avatar. Rohde was also the lead behind the creation of Aulani, A Disney Resort and Spa in Hawaii, and he will be leading the creation of Disney’s second private island in the Bahamas.
Outside of Disney, Rohde is also an avid traveler and conservationist. He participated in an Explorers Club Flag Expedition to Mongolia called The Leopard in the Land, during which he painted large scale plein air landscapes to show the elusive snow leopard in the wild to raise awareness.
What is The Explorers Club?
To quote directly from their website, “The Explorers Club is an international multidisciplinary professional society dedicated to the advancement of field research and the ideal that it is vital to preserve the instinct to explore. Since its inception in 1904, the Club has served as a meeting point and unifying force for explorers and scientists worldwide.”
Members of this organization include the first person to reach the North Pole, the first person to climb Mount Everest, and the first person to walk on the moon. In fact, all of the moonwalkers were members of the club.
There are different levels of involvement in the club, but the highest tier is a Fellow. Joe Rohde holds this title and Fellows are defined by the Explorers Club as those who “have made documented contributions to scientific knowledge through field expeditions. Such accomplishments are often evidenced by scientific publication, but may also be documented in books, popular media, or broadcast media.” Considering his resume, it’s no surprise to this writer that Joe Rohde has earned this title.
What is the Lowell Thomas Award?
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There it is. The Lowell Thomas Award. I must say it is humbling to receive it when the other recipients are: a guy who more or less discovered/mapped the Marianna’s Trench and literally developed the theory of deep ocean subduction. A guy who has uncovered many of the worlds most remote deep water shipwrecks. A guy who has documented four decades of glacial morphology in Alaska and written government papers on evidence of climate change. A woman who is the Director of the National Air and Space Museum who is also a planetary vulcanologist and did a whole bunch of NASA stuff. Plus …the keynote speaker…she was an astronaut. So, as a theme park designer I was lucky to just be in the room.
The Lowell Thomas award is only given by the President of the Explorers Club on special occasions to groups of outstanding explorers. The theme this weekend was titled “Exploring the 21st Century of Frontiers” and it was dedicated to focuses on science, exploration, innovation, and sustainability.
Rohde received this award alongside the man who, in Rohde’s words, “more or less discovered/mapped Marianas trench and literally developed the theory of deep-ocean subduction.” Other recipients included a leader in discovering remote deep-ocean shipwrecks, a man who has spent 40 years documenting the glacier changes in Alaska, and a woman who is a planetary vulcanologist and the director of the National Air and Space Museum.
So what does this mean?
The fact that a Walt Disney Imagineer as given this prestigious award shows just how much farther the work of a theme park designer can go, be recognized as such a high-level explorer should be inspiring to us all.
Joe Rohde is an inspiration not just in his artistic and conservation efforts, but also when it comes to understanding that a job is only limited by your imagination. Rohde’s connection to nature through all of his work with Disney, and the innovations implemented at Animal Kingdom is just one great example. But it’s also what he’s done outside of work; the continued artistic dedication to exploring the unknown, cultural and natural preservation, and educating people.
When you look at it from this perspective, there’s no surprise he’s been recognized like this. Still, a theme park designer was recognized by the nation’s most prestigious exploration society. What can’t you do from your position?
Congratulations Joe! You’ve earned it!