Disney opens re-branded ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex near Orlando

Walt Disney World opened its re-branded ESPN Wide World of Sports on February 25 in a ceremony that only Disney could stage.

Athletes (everyone from golf legend Annika Sorenstam to the Cincinnati Bengals’ Chad Ochocinco) walked a “green carpet” made from turf and signed autographs for fans, many of whom had won sweepstakes or booked special travel packages to be there. Florida Governor Charlie Crist even flew in to take the stage and discuss how important youth sports are to Florida, both in tourism dollars and in health and wellness.

New Orleans Saints (and Super Bowl Champion) kicker Garrett Hartley put one over the gate of the complex with an assist from Minnie Mouse. The gate opened and out poured dozens of sports stars, ESPN personalities and youth sports athletes, led by Mickey Mouse, who was dressed and ready to take the field himself.

And then the real fireworks began. Really. Fireworks.

And confetti cannons, because it’s not a Disney event without confetti cannons.

But unless you are the parent of a child who plays sports, you probably didn’t know that Walt Disney World had a sports complex. This grand re-opening is part of Disney’s push to change all that.

Youth sports is big business for Walt Disney World. The 14-year-old complex hosted more than 300 events last year and drew hundreds of thousands of people to Central Florida. Faron Kelley, Disney’s director of sports marketing, says 85 percent of those people would not have vacationed in Central Florida otherwise. That’s a lot of add-on Disney park hoppers and hotel rooms.

%Gallery-86600%The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex was already home to a baseball stadium (where the Atlanta Braves do spring training), two field houses that can be set up to house everything from college basketball to inline hockey to robotics competitions, and dozens of baseball, softball and soccer fields.

Through a direct pipeline with ESPN studios, SportsCenter hosts will provide intros to the youth sports clips. And some of the action may even make it to ESPN’s cable or online networks. The goal is to make even the flag-football players “feel like they’ve made the big time.”

The ESPN name change brought some new additions, mainly in the form of high-definitions cameras and screens throughout the complex. The plan is to film many of the events taking place around the sports complex and edit highlight reels that will be shown on the big screens around the ESPN Wide World of Sports, as well as on a dedicated TV channel in Walt Disney World’s 27,000 hotel rooms.

Through a direct pipeline with ESPN studios in Bristol, Conn., SportsCenter hosts will provide intros to the youth sports clips. And some of the action may even make it to ESPN’s cable or online networks.

The goal, says Disney Sports Enterprises Senior VP Ken Potrock, is to make those Pop Warner flag-football players “feel like they’ve made the big time.”

ESPN President George Bodenheimer announced that ESPN will continue to use the Wide World of Sports Complex, and its year-round access to outdoor sporting events, to develop new broadcast technologies. The ball tracker used in last summer’s broadcast of the All-Star Game Home-Run Derby was developed here. And future development for ESPN’s 3D cable network, which launches June 11, will happen at the ESPN Innovation Labs nestled among the Atlanta Braves practice fields at the complex.

Also new to the ESPN Wide World of Sports is the Playstation Pavilion, where players can come between games to try out the latest video games (sometimes before they are available in stores). And there’s a new central marquee with a giant video screen and scrolling news ticker at the crossroads of the complex. Underneath? An information booth where those youth sports enthusiasts can extend their hotel stays and buy water park tickets.

Potrock says while no plans have been announced, there are more than 250 acres set aside for new development at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. And this spring, while dozens of softball, baseball, golf and soccer teams travel down from the Northeast and Midwest to thaw out and train, Potrock’s staff is working on bringing down an event for a fast-growing, new sport: Pickleball.

“Just don’t ask me what it is,” Potrock says.

So, we looked it up. Pickleball is a game played on a badminton court with the net lowered to 34 inches. Players use a paddle (like a ping-pong paddle), to bat a plastic baseball with holes (like a waffle ball) over the net. There’s even a USA Pickleball Association.

We’re guessing Disney could fit six, maybe even 12, Pickleball courts inside one of its fieldhouses for a round-robin tournament. And I, for one, can’t wait for that SportsCenter highlight reel.