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Opinion: Imagineer Zach Riddley being built up as the next Joe Rohde

by Tharin White

When Disney Imagineer Joe Rohde announced his retirement last November, it was a shock to Disney fans. Rohde is famous for being the leading mind behind Disney’s Animal Kingdom, the Aulani Resort by Disney in Hawaii, Pandora – The World of Avatar, Adventurers Club, and much more (including his large collection of earrings). Rohde grew a strong fanbase, one that Disney certainly promoted on numerous occasions. So, when you lose the fan-made current “king” of Walt Disney Imagineering, what do you do? You make a new one. In comes Imagineer Zach Riddley.

Joe Rohde and Zach Riddley

Riddley has a long history with the company. He is a high-level Imagineer and has proven to be good on camera. He has a well-run Instagram account with a base of Disney fans now following him. (His account was first created a year ago and Disney started promoting it last June.) All of these things matter when you need to make a viable choice to take the mantle previously held by Rohde.


Take a look above to hear Rohde talking about his passions. His extreme focus on detail and storytelling, on true immersion and on sticking to the theme of Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Then, listen to his continued passion about his new role at Virgin Galactic. He speaks with such love and belief in his projects. This was integral to his mass following that grew and grew.


Joe Rohde shoe tribute by Zach Riddley.

Riddley has worked alongside Rohde before, they have a history. While there are hundreds of Imagineers, not many would want to run a consistent popular Instagram account or be the face of Imagineering. Even less are even given the chance. While us fans heard about Rohde’s retirement in November, it can be assumed Disney knew about it well before that. It could even have been many months before.

If so, Disney must have realized that an iconic man was about to leave the company. Rohde led teams on large-scale projects, hosted Adventures by Disney tours to Africa, got fans excited for projects they might have been cautious of and overall was a great speaker for the Disney brand of storytelling.

Disney may have seen this as a time to try to find a new voice and face for the wonderfully complex world of Walt Disney Imagineering. They needed a smart person who could lead Imagineers and guests alike. This person needed to be comfortable on camera and be engaging enough online to garner an audience. Riddley could have proposed himself, or it could have just fallen into place. Either way, it appears his name was presented and chosen. Now, Disney has started the ball rolling to build up his reputation quickly.


Zach Riddley's introduction graphic for the Disney Parks blog.

If I was Disney, I would do it, much the same way Disney seems to have started. First, introduce Riddley for the majority of fans that don’t know him yet, making sure to tag his most popular account. From here he would garner some new followers. I would verify he has a strong understanding of social media. I would let him share an exclusive look or article to make fans know he is a big deal. Afterwards I would remind everyone about him again, focusing on him as a lovable person you should like. I would then double-down on his ability to share exclusive details. From here, I would make him a “source” all his own. This would require news sites, like ourselves, to follow him for the chance to get the first scoop on new details.


With this newly-made fame I would begin to associate him with a park. Rohde had many projects, but was known as the Animal Kingdom guy. With the massive work ongoing at Epcot, it is the natural choice. If you have placed him in the correct position, he can also deliver the news that could anger guests, like permanent show structures in World Showcase Lagoon. I would let him be the center of news from now on for construction in that park. Eventually, he would be his own entity, not even needing Disney to share his work. This would make him the guy who shares deep-dives and details you can’t even get from the regular Disney news.

We are currently in the middle of a pandemic, but I would seek to have him at in-person events as soon as possible when it is safe to do so. Have him meet the media again and again. Make his face, his voice and his personality instantly recognizable. I would move to make him have a big presence on a national news station during a show like Disney’s own favorite, “Good Morning America”.


Zach Riddley inside the Star Destroyer show building at Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

Let it be known, I write this article simply to pose the question of the next face of Walt Disney Imagineering. I am in no way saying that Riddley hasn’t earned his reputation or that his works are simply for influencer sake. He just appears to have been aligned perfectly to take the steps to become the next icon for the Imagineers. His excellent work speaks for itself, and it will continue to as Epcot goes forward in its reimagining in the years ahead.


Given these theories, plus the links to add context and merit to what I have assumed, what do you think? Is Zach Riddley being lined up as the next great spokesperson of Walt Disney Imagineering? Let us know below.

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1 comment

Vinnie March 9, 2021 - 10:45 am

Excellent article Tharin
I completely agree with your premise that Disney is positioning Riddley to be the next “lead” imagineer
With Rhode having retired Riddley seems a natural fit to be the face of Imagineering

Reply

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