The History of a Current Geek by Daniel Sandefur
Growing up as the son of an electrician, I was allowed to play with lots of things that children shouldn’t have. I remember one particular electric motor with exposed wiring that I used to create all sorts of contraptions. On more than one occasion, after completing my design, I experienced an electric shock while testing my latest and greatest product. After a few jolts of current, I began to realize the importance of safety when working with electricity. Looking back on those experiences, it seems natural that my entire career has not only been in the electrical field but has been focused on safe and creative electrical installations.
I began my electrical career at Square D testing and inspecting medium voltage switchgear in the Smyrna, Tennessee manufacturing plant. It’s still really strange to most of us that medium voltage is considered 1,000 to 35,000 volts but when you consider that high voltage runs as high as 230,000 volts and extremely high voltage can be as much as 765,000 volts, it makes sense. During my time at Square D, I saw many new electrical products being used. PLC’s took the place of many electromechanical relays. LED lighting was new, expensive, and rarely used, and electronic components were dramatically shrinking in size. I always look back fondly on my time spent there. I was a part of electrical projects such as the construction of the Stratosphere Casino in Las Vegas, new switchgear at Vanderbilt University, and other projects as far away as Hong Kong. I was also fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the industry and they taught me how to read drawings and understand electrical circuitry. That skill has served me well as my career has progressed.
While working at Square D, I decided to get my electrical contractor’s license and do some side work to make a little extra money for my growing family. That first test was brutal. I felt like someone beat me with a stick for 6 straight hours when it was over. Luckily for me, I passed it with a score of 88%. I swore that I would never take another electrical test.
As I became more knowledgeable and experienced in the electrical trade, I was offered a position as an electrical inspector for the Tennessee Department of Fire Prevention and had to take another test to show that I was qualified. As soon as I passed that test and accepted the job, I was informed that I had to take two more certification tests within a year. I was not excited about that but I buckled down and studied the National Electrical Code and passed them both within a month. OK, now I will never have to take another electrical test again. Unfortunately, that thought would not last very long.
During my time as an electrical inspector in Tennessee, I continued to see changes in the electrical industry. LED lighting was becoming common. Lighting controls were becoming more sophisticated and smart switches were being used in homes. The beginning of the smart home had begun. Once again, I was blessed to work with some of the best and I took every opportunity that I had to learn from them. I participated in the construction of my first high-rise building, worked on hospitals, and got my first taste of the themed entertainment world when I inspected the attractions at the local fair every year. I was exposed to many different types of electrical construction projects including single and multifamily residential, swimming pools, commercial, and industrial. I learned from each of them.
As my career progressed farther, I began teaching code classes throughout the country aiming to help other young electricians pass their electrical exams. I had several books published by DeWalt Tools and a few private publishers, one of which is titled “The Current Geek”. To teach effectively, you must have experience in what you are teaching. Since I am teaching electricians how to pass their exams, I need to be proficient in passing an exam. With that thought, I began taking electrical exams and have accumulated numerous certifications and master electrician licenses in 32 states. My idea of never taking another electrical test was completely wrong. To this day, I still enjoy teaching the codes to those eager to learn in addition to updating and editing books every three years when a new edition of the N.E.C. comes out. Once again, teaching and writing have brought me in contact with some of the best in the industry that have become both mentors and friends.
I remember taking my children to Disney World when they were young and thinking how great it would be to one day work in the parks. The opportunity came in early 2009 and I jumped at it. I took a job with the Reedy Creek Improvement District (R.C.I.D) as an electrical inspector and plans examiner. The exposure to all of the new technology and interactive elements was thrilling. I was working with the great team at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) and I was thrilled. I remember my wife asking me one day after work: “Why are you so happy?” The answer to that is simple. Make a living doing what you enjoy. I like to see really cool things being built, and work as they are designed to, once they are completed. I get to do that every day at my job. I was a small part of exciting projects such as Kidani Village, Bay Lake Tower, Fantasyland Expansion, Pandora, and The Lion King Theater. One of the most interesting projects that I worked on was a cogeneration plant. Food is composted in a tank and the methane gas that is generated is used to power generators. The generators supply transformers that feed the power grid. Not only does the food waste provide electricity but the dried-up food is then turned into fertilizer pellets. Nothing is wasted. Not only did I get to work on these fun projects, I was again working with the best of the best. While working at R.C.I.D., I was first introduced to the team at AOA. Little did I know that they would be a big part of my life in the near future.
In 2015, I left R.C.I.D. and took a job with an electrical contracting company in Alabama. As the director of electrical construction for a nationwide contractor, I was able to expand my experience. During a short two-year span, I became a part of the Walmart disaster response team. Our job was to respond immediately and make electrical repairs to any Walmart store that was affected by a natural disaster. That happens more than you might think. At least four stores were hit by tornados and one was flooded during my short time there. Not only did I have to manage the electrical construction but I was now introduced to the mounds of paperwork associated with construction. Lien waivers, proposals, pay applications, warranties, contracts, and employee management were all new to me. I took on projects at Tesla in Fremont, California, three Carmike movie theaters in Tennessee and one in both Tulsa, Oklahoma and Holly Springs, North Carolina. In addition to those projects, I managed the installation of robots in many Sam’s Club warehouses as well as the electrical construction of a new Cabela’s, Dick’s Sporting Goods, and several strip malls. This position taught me not only to be flexible and respond quickly but to also be diligent and pay attention to details. One mistake on a multimillion-dollar proposal can cost a lot of money.
After two years of managing a business for 14 hours a day and seven days a week, my family and I grew homesick for Florida. It’s hard to leave the hustle and bustle of the theme parks and settle in a quiet Alabama town with few entertainment options. We had all left many special people back in Florida. One day, I was talking on the phone with a friend from R.C.I.D. as he was having lunch with Dave Driver from WDI. Dave told me that I need to come back to Florida and he has some people that he wants me to meet. Those people were Mike Ostendorf and Tom Acomb, the owners of AOA. Dave is a WDI legend. Not only do I consider Dave a friend, but he is one of the best people that I know and his electrical knowledge is amazing. When he told me that AOA was the place to go, I listened. The direct quote from Dave is: “If I was a younger man, I would sweep the floor if I had to so that I could work for these guys.” With that said, I met with Mike, Tom, and Denise at AOA and I was offered a job as a Senior Construction Manager. After the introductions and touring the AOA facility, I knew that this was the place that I wanted to be.
My first assignment with AOA was the third parking garage at Disney Springs. I know, a parking garage doesn’t sound that exciting but this one was special. This parking garage had state of the art LED lighting and controls, a parking guidance system, WiFi, and network connection. The project executive for AOA on that project was Wes Collier. I started working with Wes and Steve DeMichele on this project and learned quickly that they were superstars. Mike, Tom, and Denise are the type of leaders that let the experts do what they know how to do. That confidence in the team inspires everyone to do their best which leads to success. After over 20 years in the construction industry, I was still meeting and working with some of the smartest people in the industry.
Halfway through the construction of the parking garage, I was called away to assist at another Disney project. This one had some challenges. The team at WDI was great and after many weeks of long days and nights, the project came to a successful completion. How you react to challenges will show your character and reputations are built on how you respond to adversity. It’s not exciting to work on tough jobs but it does provide a chance to showcase your skills.
The last few years of my time at AOA, until recently, has been spent working with WDI on Cirque Du Soleil, The NBA Experience, Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, and several other “top secret” projects. It has been exciting, fun, and full of challenges and learning opportunities. Each project is different and that is what makes themed entertainment work so attractive. When I wake up at 3 a.m. to meet an inspector for a lighting test, that may not sound like fun. The fun part is that we get to do the test inside of the Millennium Falcon on Batuu and in The Cantina with Figrin D'an and the Modal Nodes playing in the background. My youngest son is an electrical engineering student at the University of Central Florida. As an intern at AOA, I have been able to share some of these unique experiences with him.
When construction work came to an abrupt halt in early 2020, we were all concerned about our jobs. The leaders at AOA worked day and night to keep the company moving and they landed me an opportunity to support two new projects for Meow Wolf. I will be the first to admit that I was not familiar with them. After meeting the Meow Wolf team, I quickly discovered that I was now getting to do something different with a new group of really cool people. They welcomed us into the project and after seeing what they create, I was thoroughly intrigued. To call Meow Wolf an art museum would not do it justice. Think interactive art museum, playground, and attraction rolled into one. The goal of Meow Wolf is to get people into their attraction that would not normally visit a museum. It works. The current projects in Las Vegas and Denver consist of interactive elements, cool art pieces, slides, and lots of electronics. That’s what gets me motivated every day. I get to work with one of a kind, interactive, electrical components that people of all ages will get to enjoy seeing and playing with. Each piece is designed by a different artist and the works are all thrown into one building and tied together with a central theme. It is fun.
After more than 30 years in the electrical construction field, I have come to some obvious conclusions. You can always learn something if you listen carefully. The world is always changing. It may be a virus that changes your course or technology that will change the way you do something. Adapt and overcome. In the near future, we will see all sorts of exciting innovations. OLED lighting is making it possible to print lighting fixtures from an ink-jet printer. You will soon be able to roll your television up and put it in a poster tube and take it with you. Alternative energy is the wave of the future. Whether it be solar, wind, fuel cells, sodium (look up Na-TEC), or some other energy source, we will always be looking for more affordable and sustainable energy sources. Do something that you will enjoy and seek out the best in your field. There have been too many positive influences in my life to list them all here. Some of them do not even know the impact that they have had on my life. I am deeply appreciative of all of the lessons that I have learned from others and now that I am older, I intentionally try to teach the younger generation. Be kind, supportive, and do your best in everything. You can make a difference in this world.
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