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A Personal Look Back: When Major League Baseball Came to the Mouse House

posted on March 28th, 2012 by Gary Buchanan, Social Media Managing Editor


As you read in Darrell’s post, 15 years ago, a new era was launched at Disney Parks when Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex opened at Walt Disney World Resort. To answer the question Darrell posed in his post, I was fortunate to attend the game and watch the Braves and Reds play under the stars. I was asked to jot down some memories that stuck with me from the event — an event dubbed a “Grand (Slam) Opening.”

“Disney's

Even though I was working that evening, I was excited as any sports fan as I walked into the pristine stadium. I bent down and touched the grass in front of the dugout and was instantly reminded of my own Little League days.

“Atlanta

I was one of the PR cast members assigned to gather quotes to provide to visiting news media in the press box. I remember talking to legendary Braves manager Bobby Cox in the dugout. I listened as he likened the facilities to a brand-new luxury automobile about to be driven for the first time. I heard the crack of a bat and looked behind me to see Braves star Chipper Jones (pictured above during the evening’s introductions) fielding ground balls right outside the dugout. I remember talking with Braves starting pitcher Greg Maddux as he warmed up in the bullpen. Soon, skydivers descended onto the field and fireworks filled the night air. It was time to “Play Ball.”

A capacity crowd watched the Braves beat the Reds 9-7. Reds outfielder Deion Sanders, one of the greatest athletes in pro sports, holds the honor of recording the first hit, stealing the first base and scoring the first run in the complex’s history. Fred McGriff of the Braves smacked the complex’s first home run that night as well.

“Reds

Fifteen years later, a lot has changed. Cox and Maddux, both future Baseball Hall of Famers, have retired. McGriff, who hails from nearby Tampa, also has retired. Sanders was enshrined into the NFL Hall of Fame in 2011. The Reds shortstop in that 1997 game, Barry Larkin (pictured above, prior to the inaugural game), will be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame this summer. And just last week, Chipper Jones announced his retirement at the very same stadium he helped open 15 years ago.

The biggest changes, though, have come with the growth of the sports complex. Now known as ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, there are more sports, more fields and courts, more athletes and more competitions than ever before. Athletes of all ages come every year to “play at the next level.”

I can only imagine what memories young athletes have when they train and compete at the 270-acre facility. For me, my greatest memory was 15 years ago as I watched the boys of summer first play in Mickey’s backyard.

If you were at the Grand (Slam) Opening in 1997, be sure to let us know in the comments.

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A Toast to 15 Years of Wild and Wonderful Sports at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on March 28th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


With the swing of a bat, the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort officially opened 15 years ago today. It was an Atlanta Braves spring training game under the lights against the Cincinnati Reds that featured the likes of superstar Deion Sanders, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin and former All-Star Fred “Crime Dog’’ McGriff.

Were you there?

Back then, the place was called Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. But over the last decade and a half, the venue has undergone extraordinary growth, including being re-imagined with the ESPN brand, and today stands as the leading multi-sports venue in the nation for youth and pro athletes.

In all, more than 200,000 athletes, coaches and fans visit the 270-acre complex each year to compete in more than 350 different events, which over the years have included Tampa Bay Bucs training camp, the NBA Pre-Draft Camp, the Major League Baseball Draft, the World Cheerleading Championships and the Pop Warner Super Bowl.

To mark today’s 15th anniversary, here’s my unofficial look at some of the most memorable moments in the sports complex’s history:

AAU Boys Basketball Super Showcase and National Championships return to Disney and feature a host of future NBA stars, including preps Al Jefferson, Glen “Big Baby” Davis and O.J. Mayo (pictured). Coaches attending include Roy Williams (North Carolina), Bill Self (Kansas), Tom Izzo (Michigan State), Mark Few (Gonzaga) and Billy Donovan (Florida). National Consortium for Academics & Sports (NCAS) inducts Muhammad Ali into its Hall of Fame. Celebration at the sports complex includes special ceremony renaming Victory Way to Muhammad Ali Way for the day. Legendary sports journalist Dick Schaap serves as Master of Ceremonies. Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex Grand Opening includes a Major League Baseball spring training game - the Atlanta Braves defeated the Cincinnati Reds, 9-7, in front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000 at the Baseball Stadium. Reds outfielder Deion Sanders records first hit, steals first base and scores first run in the history of the sports complex, while Braves slugger Fred McGriff hits the ballpark’s first home run.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Training Camp marks the first NFL preseason training camp in the history of Disney’s Wide World of Sports. The Bucs’ new era under first-year head coach Jon Gruden started at Disney and ended in January 2003 with a Super Bowl title in San Diego. The Bucs conducted joint practices on Aug. 9-10 with the Miami Dolphins (incl. Ricky Williams, Jason Taylor and Zack Thomas) in the outfield of the baseball stadium. The joint practices attracted a stadium record 12,550 fans. The inaugural World Baseball Classic, a 16-team tournament sanctioned by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), featured many of the best players in the world competing for their home countries and territories for the first time ever. Disney’s Wide World of Sports hosted one of four Round 1 pools (six games). The Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Australia and Italy participated at Disney. Players included David Ortiz, Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Mike Piazza and Andruw Jones. A host of sports’ biggest stars help kick off the opening of the newly re-imagined ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. More than 50 athletes and ESPN personalities, including Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson, NFL all-pro Chad Ochocinco, softball star Jennie Finch and former LPGA great Annika Sorenstam, walk the “green carpet,” and attend the special grand opening event that also included a Harlem Globetrotters game, MLS exhibition game and a special Atlanta Braves evening practice. Special guests also included Florida governor Charlie Crist, ESPN executive chairman George Bodenheimer and Disney Sports Senior Vice President Ken Potrock.
Disney Sports launches runDisney, which encompasses all six current Disney marathon and half marathon weekends. The series creates a unique series of destination races that offer one-of-a-kind running experiences over each weekend. The runDisney series also names former Olympian and endurance expert Jeff Galloway as the official training consultant. The ESPN Innovation Lab officially opened at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. The lab is used to develop new products for television broadcasts and is the official 3D broadcast development hub for ESPN. Soccer Player Lionel Messi Kicks Off a Game with Mickey Mouse
First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a fitness activity with local children at the Magic of Healthy Living event at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The event celebrated the First Lady's 'Let's Move!' initiative and recognized Disney's efforts to promote healthier lifestyles among kids and families. Orlando Magic Training Camp brings Coach Chuck Daly’s squad to Disney’s fieldhouse prior to the Magic franchise’s ninth season. Penny Hardaway, Nick Anderson, and Horace Grant highlighted the Magic roster. The Magic returned to train at Disney in 2003. The Tampa Bay Rays hosted the first of two regular-season series at Champion Stadium (the second one was in 2008). In 2008, the Rays swept the Toronto Blue Jays (6-4, 5-3, 5-3) to improve their record at Disney to 6-0 and went on to reach the team’s first-ever World Series.
NBA Pre-Draft Camp is held Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex in 2007 and 2008. Potential top draft picks – including future MVP Derrick Rose – are involved in drills, games and physical exams under the watchful eye of representatives from virtually every NBA team and the league office. Among the well-known names were Larry Bird, Michael Jordan and Larry Brown. On the heels of recruiting Lebron James and Chris Bosh to join him in South Florida, Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade visits the complex, and plays in a special 3-on-3 basketball game with AAU girls’ basketball players and Mickey Mouse. PGA TOUR mega-star Tiger Woods conducts his first-ever Tiger Woods Youth Foundation golf clinic at Disney’s Wide World of Sports as one of a handful of events that took place just prior to the Grand Opening of the complex. During the event, Tiger provides instruction to 150 junior golfers from Tampa and Orlando. He also receives the key to the City of Orlando from Mayor Glenda Hood.

See the posts below for another look at just a few of the past events held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex:

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AS Roma and ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World Resort Create Italian Pro Soccer Presence for America’s Youth Athletes

posted on March 19th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


Famed Italian football club AS Roma is teaming up with ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. As part of the new agreement, the sports complex becomes the official winter training home of the three-time Serie A champions, along with AS Roma serving as presenting sponsor of several Disney-owned youth soccer events. The Rome-based professional team will also have one of its youth academy teams compete in Disney’s Soccer Showcase.

“Mark

Franco Baldini (photo, right), director general of football operations for AS Roma, and the club’s Chief Executive Officer Mark Pannes (photo, left) recently visited the 270-acre multi-sport complex, and anticipate many benefits to training at Walt Disney World Resort.

“The facilities are tremendously impressive,” said Franco Baldini, director general of football operations for AS Roma. “The ability to come here to train at this state-of-the-art complex in good weather during the Serie A winter break will be a big advantage.”

AS Roma’s involvement underscores the sports complex’s stature as the nation’s top youth soccer venue, which annually hosts pro soccer events as well as many of the country’s most prestigious youth soccer tournaments.

The joint venture also integrates the Italian football club, winner of nine Coppa Italia titles and two Supercoppa Italiana crowns, into the U.S. youth soccer market, where it hopes to expand its fan base.

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Stars of NFL Gridiron Show Off Their Arms at the Walt Disney World Resort

posted on March 12th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


Chicago Bears Linebacker Brian Urlacher Throws First Pitch at the Walt Disney World Resort

One of the unique opportunities about ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is you never know who you might see.

Over the weekend, Atlanta Braves spring training, in its 15th year at Disney, enjoyed a pair of visits from two big NFL names – both literally and figuratively. On Sunday, Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher got the Braves-Blue Jays game off on the right foot, firing a perfect first pitch strike to Atlanta’s Brandon Beachy. With the help from a couple Disney friends, of course.

One day earlier, as the Yankees came to town, New England Patriots running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis attended his first-ever baseball game, and showed he’s got the natural skill set to have been a two-sport star himself.

Braves spring training at Walt Disney World Resort runs through April 2. New this year is the for Family Field Day Package (four lawn tickets, four hotdogs, four bottled sodas and four chips) for $69 – available for the following dates: March 16, 17, 18 or 30, or April 2. For more information visit espnwwos.com, or call 407-939-GAME.

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From Wheelchair to Running on Air at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on February 27th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


If you happened to see Kimberly Sheerin running the Disney Tangled Royal Family 5K this past weekend at Walt Disney World Resort, she probably looked just like any other runner in the field. But the truth is she is far from ordinary.

The fact that she was able to run three yards, let alone 3.1 miles, made her unique when you consider that it was about this time last year when she was in a car accident near her hometown of Winter Haven, Fla., that left her as a virtual quadriplegic. A C-3 incomplete spinal cord injury is what doctors called it that day in April when she was rushed to Lakeland Regional Hospital. She couldn’t move her arms and could barely move her legs.

Yet, after several months of exhaustive and painful rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, she regained the use of arms and legs and set a goal of running in the 5K during Disney’s Princess Half Marathon Weekend. Her doctors called it “remarkable.’’ I would argue it was a little magical too. I mean, this is the place where dreams come true, right?

In typical Disney fashion, her entire rehab team decided to run with her. And yes, they all finished the race. Together.

Here’s a video clip of her story.

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Booth’s Record Day at Disney is a Family Affair

posted on February 26th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


Say this for Rachel Booth: she sure knows how to make a grand entrance.

(FEB. 26, 2012): Rachel Booth, 31, of Mandeville, La., crosses the finish line to capture the 2012 Disney's Princess Half Marathon title Feb. 26, 2012 at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Booth, with an official time of 1:18:11, bested a field of 19,000 registered runners for the 4th annual 13.1-mile event. A record 27,000 athletes took part in a variety of Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend events, including a 5K race and a Health and Fitness Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Disney's Princess Half Marathon is part of the 'runDisney' series of endurance events that take place throughout the year at both Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. (Preston Mack, photographer)

Booth of Mandeville, La., signed up to run her first Princess Half Marathon at Walt Disney World Resort this weekend and made quite an impression by not only winning the 13.1-mile race in record time but she also achieved a “coast-to-coast’’ milestone. The reigning two-time winner of the Disneyland Half Marathon in Anaheim, Ca., Booth became the first person to capture women’s titles at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts.

It was quite a feat. Booth didn’t just win; she dominated, leading the race from start to finish. In fact, she likened the race to a “good morning run.’’ About the only thing she didn’t do Sunday was beat herself. Her winning time of 1:18:11 was just a tad slower than her winning time of 1:18:01 at the Disneyland Half Marathon last fall.

(FEB. 26, 2012):  Fireworks light up the early morning sky Feb. 26, 2012, to mark the start of fourth annual Disney's Princess Half Marathon in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. Sunday's 13.1-mile event took athletes through Walt Disney World Resort, including routes in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot theme parks. A record 27,000 athletes took part in a variety of Princess Half Marathon Weekend events, including a 5K race and a Health and Fitness Expo at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Disney's Princess Half Marathon is part of the 'runDisney' series of endurance events that take place throughout the year at both Disneyland Resort in California and Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. (Preston Mack, photographer)

Still, she crossed the finish line amid a blizzards of confetti, music, cheers and Mickey and Minnie Mouse. And in typical Disney storybook fashion, it wasn’t the record time or the bi-coastal milestone that mattered to her the most, but rather having her family – her husband, daughter and son – on hand that made the moment memorable.

“This was a lot of fun to have my two children there to enjoy the whole experience and just to see mommy cross the finish line with Minnie and Mickey,” Booth said. “…It definitely has a little bit of a special place in my heart.’’

Mine too.

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Kick It with MLS Stars at the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic

posted on February 21st, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


If you’re a soccer fan, you’re going to love this event. The third annual Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic kicks off at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Friday and it’s one of those rare opportunities to see pro soccer in a more intimate and up close setting than at a cavernous stadium where they normally play games.

Eight Pro Soccer Teams Compete at the Third Annual Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic

At the sports complex here at Walt Disney World Resort, fans will get to see eight pro soccer teams, including Major League Soccer (MLS) Cup finalist the Houston Dynamo and reigning USL Champion Orlando City Soccer. That’s twice as many teams competing as last year. The other MLS league teams are Sporting KC, FC Dallas, Montreal Impact, Toronto FC and Vancouver Whitecaps FC, who will be joined this year for the first time by Sweden’s B.K. Hacken.

This pre-season event starts Friday with an MLS Eastern Conference rematch between Houston and Sporting KC – the first time the two have faced each other since last season’s playoffs. The championship game is Saturday March 3 at 8 p.m. Tickets can be purchased at all Ticketmaster outlets and at the sports complex box office.

If you can’t make it out to the sports complex for the games, check out the action online as all games will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com except for the championship game which will be shown on ESPN3.com, ESPN’s new broadband channel.

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First Lady Michelle Obama Celebrates Second Anniversary of ‘Let’s Move!,’ Disney Magic of Healthy Living at ESPN Wide World of Sports

posted on February 11th, 2012 by Kathleen Prihoda, Manager of Media Relations, Walt Disney World Resort


Taking a cue from Perry the Platypus from the Disney Channel series “Phineas and Ferb,” First Lady Michelle Obama, Disney Channel and Disney XD stars and nearly 1,500 local children and families got their groove on this afternoon at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

First Lady Michelle Obama joins Perry The Platypus and choreographer Rosero McCoy in performing 'The Platypus Walk,' made famous in Disney Channel’s series 'Phineas and Ferb.' Mrs. Obama was at Walt Disney World Resort to celebrate the second anniversary of her Let's Move! initiative and the Disney Magic of Healthy Living, both of which promote healthier lifestyles among children and families.

With the goal of showing how fitness can be fun, the First Lady joined pro athletes and Disney Channel stars Debby Ryan (“Jessie”), Roshon Fegan (“Shake It Up”), and Disney XD stars Doc Shaw and Kelsey Chow (“Pair of Kings”) and Olivia Holt (“Kickin’ It”) to inspire attendees to live healthier lifestyles by taking simple steps every day.

First Lady Michelle Obama participates in a fitness activity with local children at the Magic of Healthy Living event at Walt Disney World Resort. The event celebrated the First Lady’s Let’s Move! Initiative and recognized Disney’s efforts to promote healthier lifestyles among kids and families.

From “The Platypus Walk” (a new dance inspired by Perry the Platypus) to soccer drills to cooking demos with healthy foods, the event was jam packed with activities that can easily be done at home. Kicking, sprinting and jumping were par for the course and the kids seemed to enjoy the challenge.

These efforts mark the second anniversary of Let’s Move!, the First Lady’s initiative to end childhood obesity within a generation, and Disney Magic of Healthy Living, an initiative designed to partner with parents in their quest to raise healthy, happy kids.

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Preview of Disney’s Princess Half Marathon Merchandise at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on February 7th, 2012 by Erin Catalano, Merchandise Communication Specialist, Walt Disney World Resort


Ear Hat for Disney’s Princess Half Marathon at Walt Disney World Resort

A few weeks ago my fellow Disney Parks Blog author Michelle Harker gave you a first look at some merchandise created for the Inaugural Tinker Bell Half Marathon held at Disneyland Resort. The article sparked a lot of interest, so I figured I would share a first look at some of the merchandise we’ve created for the upcoming Disney’s Princess Half Marathon weekend being held Feb. 24-26 at Walt Disney World Resort.

Apparel for Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World Resort

One item that caught my eye was the “I Did It!” shirt which contains a map of the course on the back. I also liked the shirt that contains the running shoe on a pillow logo. John Smith, product developer for Sports Merchandise, told me the logo may look familiar to runners.

“The logo with the running shoe on the pillow has been used on collateral and signage for a few years,” explained John. “We liked the logo so much that we gave it some new colors and added it to merchandise.”

Light-up Tiara Created for Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World Resort

John also added a light-up tiara to the mix this year which also contains that shoe pillow logo. The tiara will have an on/off switch and several of the blue jewels will light up when activated.

Dooney & Bourke Bags Created for Disney's Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Walt Disney World Resort

Some of the most anticipated items will be new Dooney & Bourke items that have a Disney Princess theme. There will be a tote, cross-body bag and a wristlet. Similar to the bags released for the Tinker Bell Half Marathon, there will be a specially designed medallion attached to the tote and cross-body bag.

These items and others will be released at the Disney’s Fit for a Princess Expo starting on February 24 at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Good luck to all of the participants! I can’t wait to see photos.

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Wounded Military Heroes Play Ball at Walt Disney World Resort

posted on January 11th, 2012 by Darrell Fry, Sports Media Director, Walt Disney World


Standing near first base next to Major League Baseball All-Stars Johnny Damon and A.J. Pierzynski, I finally realized who my favorite player is. No, not Pierzynski or Damon. It’s Josh Wege. And Greg Reynolds. And the rest of the members of the Wounded Warriors Amputee Softball team running around Field 13 at ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex at Walt Disney World Resort this morning.

These U.S. military veterans have each lost a limb – in Wege’s case, two limbs – while fighting for their country in Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet, after extensive rehabilitation, they have mustered the courage to join together and travel the country playing exhibition softball games. With all due respect to the New York Yankees, these guys really should be considered “America’s Team.’’

Today they were practicing at our sports complex in preparation for exhibition games in nearby Plant City, Fla., against several former U.S. Olympic softball team members such as Jennie Finch. Pierzynski (Chicago White Sox) and Damon (Tampa Bay Rays), who both live in Orlando, jumped at the chance to meet the team. They even brought their baseball gloves and practiced with them.

It was a real thrill to stand there at first base so close to these superstar ball players. Oh, and it was good to see Pierzynski and Damon, too.

Here’s a brief video of Pierzynski, Damon and the Warriors during practice:

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