Published on November 1, 2010.

Tom Moses surveys the construction of Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, including Cinderella Castle, circa 1969. (Photo: Reedy Creek Improvement District)

Future World
Tom Moses and Jerry Wooldridge, featured presenters at the upcoming NFPA Fire + Life Safety Conference, talk about making Walt Disney’s Florida dream a reality

NFPA Journal®, November/December 2010

Between them, Tom Moses and Jerry Wooldridge have had a hand in shaping Disney World for more than 40 years. In their AHJ roles for the Reedy Creek Improvement District (RCID), the roughly 40-square-mile independent governmental entity in Central Florida whose biggest landowner is the Walt Disney World Company, they’ve overseen fire- and life-safety for a succession of Disney developments, including Disney World’s four theme parks: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom. About 46 million people visit Disney World’s various resorts each year.


Hear more from Jerry Wooldridge and Tom Moses at the upcoming NFPA conference in Orlando.

Wooldridge pre-sents “Building + Life Safety at the Walt Disney World Resort Complex” as part of the conference’s Codes + Standards track on Monday, December 13, from 9:15–10:15 a.m.

Moses’s talk, “Overseeing the Development of Walt Disney World Resorts,” is the keynote lunch session on Tuesday, December 14, at noon.
 Learn more about NFPA Fire & Life Safety Conference
 Register for the Conference


Tom Moses and Jerry Woolridge.

 The biggest safety challenge facing the construction of Disney World?

 An example of a challenge in combining the need for showmanship and for public safety?
 How NFPA standards played a role in Reedy Creek / Disney World development?
 How Tom Moses was brought into the Disney World project

Moses, 76, went to work for RCID as director of building and safety in 1969, and was instrumental in developing what would become the Epcot Building Codes. He retired as vice president of administration in 2002, and is currently the city manager for the City of Lake Buena Vista, Florida. He has been a trustee of the Fire Protection Research Foundation, and a member of the NFPA Board of Directors. Moses hired Wooldridge, 58, in 1998; Wooldridge is now building official and manager of building and safety for RCID. Prior to joining RCID, Wooldridge served as building officer for Summit County, Colorado, where his work included wildland mitigation. Moses and Wooldridge are committee members for NFPA 5000®, Building Construction and Safety Code®.

Scott Sutherland, NFPA Journal executive editor, recently spoke with Moses and Wooldridge together about their years with Reedy Creek and the evolution of Disney World. The following are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Walt Disney’s philosophy was, if you can dream it, you can do it. He approached the entire Disney World project with the aim of marrying the disciplines of show business and development. They had some grandiose ideas of how to do that, and they realized early on that they would need a governmental structure that could accommodate that, partly because the project would be 20 or 30 miles away from any other infrastructure, and partly because they would need a regulatory system that would provide the codes and standards to keep the public safe while allowing for the showmanship that was to be included in all of that development. So one of the first things the Disney folks asked the state of Florida to do was create the Reedy Creek Improvement District, which the Florida legislature approved in 1967.

It’s not often you have legislation that provides the kind of mandates that were given to Reedy Creek—to encourage the use of technological advances, promote new and advanced recreational concepts, create favorable conditions for development, and provide a flexible program for experimentation in conservation and resources.

>> Half our lives in those early days went into developing a code that would let us do all the things that the Walt Disney Company wanted to do. We talked to a number of people who were with NFPA, and we used their expertise to the maximum as we developed our own code, which would become the Epcot Code—obviously, NFPA had the most information out there. Their codes and standards were key to most of the fire protection criteria that we built into the regulatory system. Construction began in 1967, and we didn’t have a lot of time to develop codes—the Magic Kingdom was scheduled to open in October, 1971.

Cinderella Castle, for example, posed all sorts of problems. People had built fiberglass buildings before, but this one would be occupied above the first floor, which was a different situation. We were figuring out how to do fire protection for it, and also protect against smoke. There weren’t a lot of standards out there that addressed these kinds of problems, and we had to figure it out.

There was also the Contemporary Resort hotel, which was an early use of modular construction. The modular rooms were constructed off-site, and we worked with the Disney people on how to fire-protect them. Before we put any rooms on the property, we brought Underwriters Laboratories down and ran a full-scale fire test on one of the rooms to be sure we’d achieved the level of fire protection we were looking for.

>> The first decision we had made was that everything built within the Walt Disney World complex would be fully sprinklered. To my knowledge, there was not another jurisdiction in the United States that required everything that was built to be fully sprinklered. It made a great deal of sense; it added to the initial cost of the construction, but it saved immensely on the kind of fire protection and fire service that we had to provide, and Disney saved a great deal on its insurance.

>> At Epcot, the geodesic sphere that houses Spaceship Earth presented some safety challenges. It’s about 180 feet high, basically a giant, round, windowless building that’s essentially open from bottom to top. You’re going to have hundreds of people in it at the same time, and you just don’t get an exit system installed in a building of that nature like you do in an ordinary foursquare building. There’s a ride mechanism that takes people up and around and through the building, and there was an exit travel distance situation that we had to deal with in some unique ways, as far as finding ways to fire-protect a vertical shaft that people could use to get down. We had to make sure there was an adequate smoke control system to alleviate smoke build-up. We had to treat the structure like a high-rise; we pressurized the stair towers for exiting purposes.
You haven’t lived until you’ve been an inspector and tried to climb out on top of that building and inspect those aluminum panels used for the exterior of that. I did it once and decided I’d rather have my guys do it. 

>> I found out what a capable individual Jerry was when we were opening the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster in 1999. I’d made it a practice over the years to go on all the new rides myself  before turning them over to the company and saying “it’s safe for you to use.” The morning of our test run of the Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster, though, I realized that my forte was not riding upside down in any kind of attraction. So I told Jerry, “you take your guys and you ride it—you’ve got the decision 100 percent in your hands, baby, because I’m not gonna ride it.” So he and a couple of his guys rode it. They came back and said, “we’re gonna ride it again.” They rode it two or three times. And I realized, you know what, this guy Jerry, he’s OK.

>> Jerry Wooldridge
Every day we encounter something new that isn’t covered by an existing code. The Mission: SPACE attraction, for example, simulates a space shuttle launch. You take four people, put restraints over them, and lock them in a cabin; there are 10 cabins on each ride bay, and four ride bays, so you’ve got 160 people on the ride. The floor drops out from underneath the cabin once it’s loaded. The whole device is part of a centrifuge that provides a positive g-force experience by spinning, and there’s absolutely no way for people to self-evacuate. So there are a lot of safety considerations with how we manage the machinery, the building, guest flow, exiting, egress, and all of the emergency systems.

The interesting part of that is each of those ride cabins has two smoke detectors, and the ride has to shut down on activation of any of the smoke detectors. Our fire prevention team had to physically go out and test each of those smoke detectors for the shut-down sequence. They had to smoke test each of the detectors in the cabins while the attraction was spinning to make sure it stopped. People would work until they were too sick to do it anymore, and then pass the can of test smoke to the next person. You literally worked until you threw up, and you were excused for a while.

It’s very rare that any of our projects can actually be designed to meet or fully comply with the prescriptive provisions of the codes; just about everything we do ends up having to have some kind of an alternative material or method attached to it. Like Tower of Terror, which simulates a free-falling elevator. You get in an elevator car and all of a sudden you drop more than 100 feet. You do a cycle that involves multiple lifts and drops. We take what most people are trying to prevent from happening and allow it to happen, and we have to determine how we can do that in as safe a manner as possible.

>> One of the first projects I was involved in was Fantasmic!, which is an outdoor live-action show. But it also has a lot of high-tech equipment and props. It has man lifts that lift actors up to 45 or 50 feet above the floor. There’s a mountain structure made of stucco, plaster, and steel that encompasses a cavern that holds an animatronic element that comes out and is part of a show that’s pretty spectacular. And there are pyrotechnic and flame effects—we actually set the river in front of the audience on fire.
A code challenge with this attraction was determining when a flame effect is too hot for an audience to be near. In this case, there’s a river that various kinds of boats travel on, but at one point the entire river turns to fire in front of the audience, which is only five feet away. So how do we determine the safe level of heat that the guests can be exposed to?  That information comes from NFPA 160, Flame Effects Before an Audience. Using that standard, we’re able to determine what the maximum rate of rise is on the exposure to the gas, and we can use that to regulate how high the flames go, and what the heat exposure is to our guests.

>> In the early days the attractions were mostly mechanical; now you have a lot of things that are computer-controlled, and you need to make sure the mechanical and computerized elements are working together in emergency situations. We spend an awful lot of time working with our egress elimination and our exiting provisions, our exit signage, the smoke-control systems, any kind of pressurization that we have to have throughout a certain building or structure. If there’s any kind of emergency signal or fire-alarm activation, we have to make sure that all of the potentially confusing sounds and lighting related to an attraction are stopped, that any kind of mechanized props that may pose a hazard to the guests stop, and we have to make sure that any lights that have been dimmed are returned to bright so that we meet our egress illumination requirements.

We go out and test every one of the buildings on Reedy Creek property at least once a year, under actual emergency conditions, to ensure that all of our safety systems function as designed and as approved. Last night, for example, I had a team come in at 10 p.m., and they went through every facility, every ride, every attraction at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to ensure that all of those safety systems function under a full-load emergency condition. 

>> The fact that the Magic Kingdom alone gets more than 15 million visitors every year—that’s the kind of number that would worry anybody. If the odds are one in a million that something bad might happen over the course of a year, then it should happen 15 times every year at the Magic Kingdom. But it doesn’t.

Still, it’s kind of scary to think about the sheer volume of what we do and the impact we can have on people. We can’t afford to miss anything.

We have to make sure that everything we do meets the code and provides a safe environment. Unfortunately, Disney is such a visible company that anytime something does happen, they seem to get a lot of negative publicity. But I can assure you that Disney World is one of the safest places in the world to be.

>> When Mr. Moses was developing the first Epcot Code, he was talking to people from all over the country to get ideas. He was working with all of the most knowledgeable people who were at the forefront of code development. The amount of forward thinking that he put into that code was really incredible, and we’re still using the code today. I can safely say that we have one of the lowest fire-loss records of any comparably sized jurisdiction in the world, and it’s because of the provisions that were put into the Epcot Code. Every sprinkler valve, every smoke detector, every notification device is monitored. We get early detection, early notification, and because everything is sprinklered, early suppression. We seldom have a structural fire of any consequence.

The code really fits the intent of Reedy Creek. How many jurisdictions, for example, are told that they need to encourage technological advancement? Most jurisdictions just say no, you can’t do that, because the code doesn’t allow it. In the case of Reedy Creek, we were mandated to find a way to do things, to be experimental and prototypical. That’s what Epcot stands for—the acronym is for Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow. The expectation is that we’ll approach everything we do with that Epcot attitude. We have to think about how we can make things work, not how or why things can’t work. So it provides you with a different mindset around code regulations from the very moment you come to work at Reedy Creek. And that was instilled in all of us by Mr. Moses.