GlS: Shaping the Future of Walt Disney World

June 1, 2000
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How a $3.5 million GIS mapping project aided in the expansion of the happiest place on Earth.

In the mid 1980s, shortly after the opening of Epcot at Walt Disney World (WDW) and the installation of Michael Eisner as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, the ground work for Disney’s next big decade of expansion at WDW began. Over the next 10 years, with the addition of more attractions, parks, hotels and shops, WDW would double its size. Did anyone know just how large the massive explosion of growth at WDW would be? Could the next decade’s aggressive development plan be done in the time allotted? As with preceding WDW projects, the theme of each day would be as it was in the beginning, “We can do it.” And do it we did. But how would hundreds of separate design teams be pulled together? How would existing and proposed resources, both natural and manmade, be incorporated into the designs and the management of such a large undertaking? The answer came in the form of a new and emerging technology called GIS.

Fortunately for Walt Disney World Design and Engineering and me, an independent contract professional surveyor working for the WDW Design and Engineering team, a good foundation of information already existed for us to pick up upon, made possible through the diligent record keeping efforts of the WDW survey and our predecessors on the Magic Kingdom and Epcot projects.

Given the limited technological resources of our predecessors, we had to reason as our predecessors did when preserving the work that had been so painstakingly archived for the benefit of future design professionals. Additionally, the emerging technological tools available to us at that time, primarily GIS, meant that we were now ready to raise the bar for ourselves and generations to follow. The existing records of past work, as well as all the new information we were about to collect, would have to be managed properly to be of good use to the design teams and withstand the years ahead with integrity. The GIS mapping part of this effort would ultimately be spearheaded by a team of people consisting of Disney personnel and sub-consultants with support staff at a cost of approximately $3.5 million to complete. I aided with almost every aspect of the GIS program.

Building the Link

The original WDW mapping grid system was established in the mid-1960s. It was based on a local coordinate datum commencing from an assumed coordinate position at a section corner that was part of the original property purchased by Walt Disney. The system used a Polaris observation for bases of bearing. The WDW coordinate grid had been expanded and improved upon over the years since, but nothing would compare with the facelift it was about to get. A complete transformation from that original WDW coordinate grid datum to the world coordinate grid system was underway. GPS base points for control of map translation and field survey control were established at 1.5 and .5 mile grid intersections throughout the property. A formula for translating the WDW existing coordinate grid control points to world coordinate grid points had been established. However, that old adage, “You can’t create a silk purse from a sow’s ear” still applied. And so, even with the new control points, some rubber sheeting was done on a small scale, in the ratio of 1:8,000 or higher. While the new WDW control grid had accuracies of first-order, class one range, the older WDW coordinate grid had mixed accuracies of the second- and third-order range. For our purposes though, this would have to do; there was no time to pause and reflect on past mistakes.

Many of the older record plan sets of drawings from previous WDW projects had callouts for as-built record positions on the WDW coordinate grid system. Three decimal place accuracies shown on a record set meant that its position was field-verified by survey. Real property boundary lines, hotel lease boundary lines, roadway geometry, utility and right of way easements had solid geometry callouts for position. We began to build the topology base maps by electronically COGOing the bearing, distance and coordinate call for select entities into digital form.

We completed the electronic entry of select themed topological entities and attached the themed entities to their associated database, making query and display of these two basic sources of information possible, as they were now linked. Visual pictorial maps for display could be created in real grid space from a digital database. Real grid spacial digital information could be extracted from an electronic map linked to the past and the present. This allowed the design teams to electronically shape the future with the assurance of real world scale.

If the needed topology could not be created from record as-built information, or if the topology features were not under the current scope of field survey to be located, then it was decided to commence with digitization of the remaining topological elements from the record drawing sets and the latest aerial photographs of the property. The aerial photographs were flown every year, and the record drawing plans were created and rectified from accurate ground control. They were available in 20, 40, 100, 200, 400 and 1,000 scale print sizes, depending on the density of development on the property’s location.

In those early days, plenty of thought went into how to manage all of the different present and future themes to be created. The topology had to be diverse enough to allow for the easy incorporation of additional data links at some future point. That was the prudent thing to do even though certain themes might not be used for some time. Therefore, the individual mapping entities were broken down to as many simple elements as could be entertained.

The Florida Water Resource Act of 1972 greatly expanded the responsibilities of property owners to manage and preserve land resources; WDW was no exception. Environmentally sensitive wetlands had to be flagged and accurately mapped if the Walt Disney Company was going to proceed with its planned expansion. Teams of ecologists and surveyors pushed through miles of wetland swamp and thick underbrush to flag and map the limits of these environmentally sensitive wetlands. This field information was gathered electronically and downloaded into a topological database one flag at a time. Fines for impacting wetlands with development are very stiff, so this work was taken seriously by all involved. The surveyed wetland line work and future land use topology were all going to became a part of the GIS database of elements to be used by Disney designers to plan, lay out and build the future of WDW.

At that time, hardware for the job was just starting to become affordable and powerful enough to handle a job of this magnitude. PCs controlled from a main server were used for the most part, and some work stations were utilized to store and manage the data that was beginning to be archived electronically. ESRI’s ArcInfo and ArcView (ESRI, Redlands, Calif.) were the primary software engines used, together with a relatively new ESRI product at the time called ArcCad, which I was also testing as a Beta site for ESRI on this project. It worked quite well. Database manipulation software, FoxPro, a C++ programmers language, (now owned by Microsoft, Redmond, Wash.) and Microsoft’s Excel were used for additional data entry, spreadsheet manipulation of data and publishing of reports.

Quality Control

Quality control on the project was part of each day’s work. If any element of the data being input had not been collected electronically, then it had to be back-checked against the original documents. Electronic data collected by field survey was backed up with field notes. Coordinate or COGO data entered into the system manually was tested for positional accuracy and closure of figure by using the tools in the ArcInfo software package. We also made physical comparisons of the line work calls for geometry against the legal documents themselves, as re-created from the database. Plots of the digitized line work were run and overlaid on the original document (the record plan or aerial photograph). Digitized line work with variances equal to or greater than 1/10th the digitized scale were revised and corrected to meet that tolerance.

Publishing the Maps and Data

Information of a tabular nature, such as time and dates, feature lengths, polygon areas, maintenance schedules and repairs of park equipment, all were associated with line items in the database. Subsequently, calculations and spreadsheets generated from these line items for storm water management, traffic flow and/or environmental impacts followed and were published in a customized format using FoxPro. Low-resolution color or black-and-white map publishing of the most basic topology was accomplished using electrostatic plotters in the office. Occasionally, the need arose to generate a display map with a higher degree of quality than the usual black line electrostatic plot maps. For higher resolution maps, we used Encapsulated Post Script (EPS) plotting software and technologies. The EPS map plots were sent to an outside source after setup on our end.

Where is WDW GIS today?

Alive and growing. The database is growing as more WDW professionals and consultants take advantage of its benefits. Professionals in the fields of architecture, law, engineering, security, construction, fire/rescue, resort operations, parks operations and guest relations have taken advantage of some aspect of this unique technology. Today, the WDW GIS paints a vision of the imagined possibilities of tomorrow, just as the colored pens of Mr. Walt Disney formed, planned and managed his vision of the future for that bare parcel of land in Orlando, Fla., some 40 years ago.

Sidebar: Did You Know?

The WDW property in Orlando spans 56 square miles, two counties, has its own municipality, utilities and every service imaginable for its millions of yearly guests.

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