Hey Joe: What's with the earings?

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He wore no shirt and tie, no "Yes, Mrs. Cleaver" haircut; this was not your father's Disney rep. I stared at him on the TV when I first saw him and marveled at his tribal earrings, his curlicue, cartoon-villain mustache and his sincerity, the real kind. No doubt about it: Disney has put a lot of cool things on TV before, but one of the coolest has got to be Joe Rohde.

"And I'm not the weirdest," says the lead designer of Disney's Animal Kingdom. "I'm a perfectly normal guy with a wife, two kids, a dog and a house in the suburbs. You should see some of the Imagineers."

But normal suburban guys aren't adorned like this. They don't wear necklaces as big as pageant sashes which they made themselves in Katmandu from pieces they picked up there, with a Tibetan belt buckle for a centerpiece. Normal suburban guys also don't sport a pierced ear with a hole the size of a lonely teardrop, like something from National Geographic, a tear grown so large because it supports about eight large earrings at a time.

"When you wear earrings like this," he says, meaning many, "people just keep giving them to you. You have to wear them all." He pulls them away from each other for inspection, these many-metaled hoops. "I got this one in Zanzibar ... this is from a Masai elder ... this one is from Rajastan, this is from South Africa ..." He explains his earbobs with such patient amiability that he can say things like "This is from a Masai elder" and "While we were rebuilding the savannas" and never sound at all pretentious.

"While we were rebuilding the savannas," he says about one of his favorites times in the park's formation, "before there was anyone out here, I used to ride my mountain bike or just sit on a rock for three hours, just like I did in Africa, and it was just ... like ... Africa." Indeed, the thorough transformation of Central Florida swampland into an entirely different continent is the most often cited of the park's accomplishments, and one of his proudest.

The Tree of Life is Rohde's masterpiece, though. Balinese wood carvers were his inspiration for the landmark, which has so many animals rising from every root and branch that even he doesn't know how many there are -- but he approximates 328. The carvings are an articulation of Bali's "stunningly talented artists. Everyone `there` has some aesthetic skill, whether it's carving, weaving or playing a musical instrument."

The California native, who grew up on Oahu, traveled all over the earth in his research, but when traveling on his own says he really likes Nepal because he prefers "a challenge." Challenge is something he fulfills and admires, as evidenced by his affection for the park's Dinoland U.S.A. section, on which he bestowed a theme that few would recognize as "rejection of authority."

"It's about science -- the science of the study of animals. Science thrives on rejection of authority." Without people willing to challenge old ideas, to throw out all the rules and unearth or create new ones, nothing would be discovered. We tend to think of scientists as these nerdy types, he says, "but actually they're quite audacious."

OK, but they could use some fashion tips: Get those NASA types an earring or two. Or 10.

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