Safety Leader

To Disney World, and Beyond! JATC introduces Automatronics, Disney corporate ethos

Invest in Your People: Education and Training Yield Big Dividends and Attract Talent
Published On
May 13, 2022

For Central Florida Electrical JATC apprentices, it’s part of the job to keep Buzz Lightyear and other Disney characters moving and talking for guests of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

Since the 1990s, the Winter Park, Fla.-based JATC’s Walt Disney Maintenance Program has drawn hundreds of applicants each year, with just 21 slots offered for first-year apprentices.

“It’s a popular program,” said Sean Donnelly, JATC director. “In any given year, about 80 to 84 apprentices are enrolled.”

At the peak of their learning curve, the third- and fourth-year apprentices learn Automatronics, a mobile robotics platform that allows automated Disney characters to “sense” their surroundings and “decide” where to go, what to do and how to interact with people and other objects.

First-year apprentices gain rudimentary skills, maintaining electrical systems, lighting, fire alarms and kitchen equipment in the Disney resorts and performing other building-related maintenance tasks.

As they progress through the program, they rotate into more complex work assignments. While training with journeymen employed by the Walt Disney Co., they provide electrical maintenance for the park’s monorail system, parades, attractions, ride controls, animation controls, lighting, security and several on-site laundry operations that serve the resort hotels 24 hours a day.

Each year, one apprentice, “usually the best of the class,” Donnelly said, is selected to work for Reedy Creek Energy Services, a Disney subsidiary that operates the electric and other utility transmission and distribution systems of the Reedy Creek Improvement District outside of Orlando.

Central Florida Electrical JATC offers a year-round schedule, which enables the Walt Disney Maintenance Program to span four years, offering journeyman permanent full-time employment at Disney upon completion. Most will remain at Disney World, one of the state’s largest employers, for the duration of their careers, Donnelly said. However, those who move on gain valuable skills and a work ethic applicable to a variety of settings.

In addition to field work, apprentices spend classroom hours with their peers. This contact can be beneficial, because apprentices not enrolled in the maintenance program sometimes end up working for contractors performing electrical installations at Disney World.

Automatronics is a mobile robotics platform that allows automated Disney characters to “sense” their surroundings and “decide” where to go, what to do and how to interact with people and other objects.

Such was the case for Donnelly, who completed his inside wiring apprenticeship program at the JATC in 2014. He served his apprenticeship with Maddox Electric Co. Inc., Winter Garden, Fla., which installed the “Pandora: The World of Avatar” attraction in Disney World’s Animal Kingdom theme park. To gain access to various areas of the park, he often made requests through fellow apprentices.

“You’re in classes together, so you become a tight-knit group,” Donnelly said. “Sometimes you come together outside the classroom in the work setting. I’m still friends with people in my class.”

Donnelly sees the JATC’s partnership with Disney as essential in a right-to-work state like Florida, where it can be challenging for unions to garner construction jobs. IBEW 606 receives 11% of the construction work in the state, he said.

In the mid-1990s, the JATC’s business agent, Roy Poteet, and James Sullivan, director at the time, started the program.

“They pretty much convinced Walt Disney World of the value of training their own people,” Donnelly said. “Why wouldn’t you want to hire people you trained?”

Besides offering employment to nearly 500 trained journeymen, the partnership has also inspired the JATC and IBEW 606 to apply corporate standards exceeding National Electrical Code and NFPA requirements.

“The industry requirement is to wear fire-rated clothing when working something live,” Donnelly said. “Walt Disney World requires apprentices and journeymen to wear an 8-cal shirt and 12-cal pants at all times.”

If the situation calls for a higher-cal suit, they must change.

“Their advocacy for safety has influenced our standards,” Donnelly said. “Because they go above and beyond the minimums for the electrical code, we do too.”

Disney World put the maintenance program on hold during the pandemic. Even so, those already enrolled were able to continue, thanks to a labor agreement that temporarily accommodated them as five-year apprentices.

Graduates receive wages and the benefits provided to all Disney employees, including health insurance and retirement savings plans. They also have the option of paying dues to IBEW 606 that apply toward the pension benefit fund.

About the Author
Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane

Susan DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at sdegra...

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