When the Braves and Reds inaugurated the beautiful baseball stadium at ESPN Wide World of Sports in 1998, I was there to cover it for a newspaper. I remember being impressed by the “Florida Picturesque” style, and the whimsical Mediterranean Revival details of a stadium that instantly became the premier spring training ballpark in Florida. (It still is that, by the way.)
Back then, I barely gave the rest of the complex a second thought. After all, this was about the partnership between Disney and the Braves. Once spring training was done, I figured the facility would — like many ballparks in Florida — merely transition into a sleepy, minor-league facility for the Double-A Orlando Rays.
These days, those minor-league Rays are long gone. So is any hint of anything remotely “minor league.” In 16 short years, ESPN Wide World of Sports (the four-letter network became part of the name in 2010) has emerged as a unique destination for participatory and spectator sports.
I and 18 other bloggers from around the country had the chance to immerse ourselves in the sports facilities and amenities — as well as the overall Disney World experience — earlier this week.
My bottom line takeaway from the very well-run and extremely informative media event: If you have a child who participates in organized sports, or you are a coach or team organizer (mom or dad) responsible for planning and executing trips for a youth sports team, I can’t imagine a better place on Earth to come than ESPN Wide World of Sports.
That’s a broad statement, I know, and it needs support. Here, then, are just a few things that stood out for me during the media event:
- The 225-acre complex is the site of more than 350 events with 350,000 youth, college and professional athletes in more than 70 sports annually. That means the Disney Sports Solutions team is extraordinarily experienced when it comes to meeting the needs of athletes and their support crew (coaches, parents, relatives, etc.).
The ESPN brand is ubiquitous, and that’s on purpose. One of the most interesting aspects of the athlete experience at the complex is the opportunity to, as the marketing slogan says, “Play at the Next Level.” Part of that next-level experience is being on TV. There is an incredible ESPN control room located behind the scenes next to Champion Stadium, and the action on the many fields and courts is almost always framed by one of the 56 high-definition cameras that dot the complex. There also are high-def 40 screens, including three jumbo screens, carrying footage all over the complex. In fact, athletes can view their professionally edited highlights from that day on a dedicated channel in their Disney resort rooms. The goal is to dramatically increase the TV presence of these games. The Watch ESPN app and ESPN3 figure big in the broadcast future of the Wide World of Sports Complex, which also serves as a testing ground for breakthrough broadcast technology like 3D.
Memorabilia is big for kids, and they do those things very well at the WWOS complex. Customized shirts are available (mine is pictured above) and the visit can be commemorated with photos and a personalized ESPN the Magazine “cover” shoot (also pictured). I can imagine kids begging their parents for these items. I know I mine would.
- Everything — and I mean, everything — logistical is handled for the teams and their organizers by the Disney Sports Solutions team. No matter what you need help with (the daily itinerary, fundraising for travel, safety and health issues, finding the right open tournament to match your team’s competitive level, housing for athletes and family members, transportation, nutritious food, entertainment between games, and so much more) the Disney Sports experts have it covered. In addition, the recently opened Office Max Business Center provides computer access, smart phone charging, and more.
And here’s the clincher. There’s no reason another sports complex couldn’t one day compete on an equal footing with Disney in all of those qualities (yes, even the broadcast element, if another big network decided to commit 100 percent to the plan). But no organization can combine a first-class athletic experience with the magic of Walt Disney World theme parks. According to the Disney Sports team, an estimated 50-60 percent of the athletes and their supporters who come to ESPN Wide World of Sports to compete have never been to Disney World. Nothing can compete with using your down time before, during or after games to head on over to the Magic Kingdom for a ride on Pirates of the Caribbean and a viewing of the Wishes Nighttime Spectacular fireworks; or to Hollywood Studios for a stroll along Hollywood Boulevard at twilight and wild rides on the Rock-n-Roller Coaster and the Tower of Terror; or to Downtown Disney for dinner and bowling at Splitsville. Sure beats cable TV or an outdated game room at some low-budget motel.
To find out how to put your team on the Road to Disney, check out the Disney Sports website. Twitter is a great way to keep up with the many goings-on at the complex, and the official Disney Sports handle is @DisneySports. There also is a YouTube channel that is updated regularly with highlights from the complex.
Here are some bonus videos taken during the Disney Sports media event I was fortunate enough to attend. The highlight for me, in addition to learning so much about a place I thought I already knew, was meeting a lot of great writers and content producers from all over the country. I learned a great deal from interacting with them, too, and I think these videos provide wonderful insight into the work that goes into reporting for blogs.
The videos also expose you to detailed, behind-the-scenes looks at what goes on at ESPN Wide World of Sports. You’ll see what we saw. The first two are five-minute versions of our tours. The third includes highlights of a really cool Run Disney Fun Run we had the chance to do at Epcot on Tuesday morning.
Disclosure: I was invited to attend the Wide World of Sports media FAM and write about what I learned. I was provided a room and promotional materials, but all opinions and editorial decisions are my own.