Slowly, steadily, the good folks at Disney and ESPN have turned one of the brand's more quizzical efforts into a mecca, not for characters, but for the character built through sport.
The once somewhat questionable child of the Disney theme empire was Wide World of Sports, launched on the outer edges of the expansive Disney World property in Orlando. At first, some thought the park was targeted to be the sports-themed version of all its fellow parks at Disney World. A place where you could potentially see games, especially college and potentially the odd professional game, maybe take in some top flight Minor League baseball and also participate in various physical events as part of a family Disney experience. However what the Disney leaders, especially former NFL and Dartmouth College star, Reggie Williams (who for years was the Pied Piper of the property) realized is that families heading to the House of Mouse didn't want to sit and watch games, or really do many of the things they could do elsewhere. They wanted the thrill of the other Disney experiences, with the combo of competing, and that's where Wide World of Sports found its sweet spot.
Youth sports events from basketball to rugby to gymnastics to cheerleading, started flocking to Disney for an experiential event and large scale competitions in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom. Instead of playing with their parents, their parents came to cheer them on, all the while getting the service and Disney-quality vacation for the rest of the family. The Atlanta Braves brought spring training to the baseball stadium, the NBA hosted their Rookie camp, the Orlando Magic and Harlem Globetrotters came in, and for a time the Tampa Bay Bucs called the property their preseason home. An amazing destination for team sports of all ages was born, and it really started to flourish. But would the economy limit travel teams, and would other destination spots try and mimic the success that Disney had with youth teams? Along came an answer.
It came in the form of ESPN, a network known for quality sports events of all kinds on the collegiate and professional level, but one looking to use its myriad of channels and digital platforms to tie to a younger audience. The first step was launching its series of ESPN.com local sites, which gave a more in-depth look at professional sports in cities like Boston, L.A. and Chicago, but also allowed for even more coverage of local events and stars. The results have been solid, and brand expansion continued for "The Worldwide Leader."
So this week, the two brands in the family took the next step in marrying these two efforts to get the younger, athletic audience together. The result is ESPN's Wide World of Sports at Disney, a combination of all the youth and amateur sports you could ever want to see together with all the best in technology and media coverage ESPN can offer. Now for families that can't make it to see the young stars of tomorrow in Orlando, highlights will be fed to Bristol or streamed online for family members to watch games back home. ESPN anchors may drop in to speak to the young track athlete or slugger competing, and interviews will be downloaded from a host of events with athletes and coaches and few out to the world. The best highlights of the day may even make it on to SportsCenter. Going even further, the entire combination of feeds will have their own dedicated channel throughout the Disney property and its thousands of hotel rooms, so the young folks can go back and watch a replay of their game around the tube that same night. All this could make for the quintessential athlete experience at Disney, in the same manor that other young people might feel a Princess breakfast or a meeting with Mickey may make their trip to Orlando complete.
Now is all this extra coverage and uploading of highlights overkill, and putting more pressure on young people to perform for the cameras like their professional heroes? Maybe. Would it cause some young Ocho Cinco-wannabe to go a little further with taunting in hopes that he makes "SportsCenter"? Possibly. However, the upside is giving all these young athletes a "once in a lifetime" experience when many times those who travel to play in events do so at a great sacrifice to experience other little events, like maybe going to Disney on a vacation because they are playing sports with their team.
Even with some critics, one thing is for certain. Starting this weekend in Orlando, Disney, with a lift from their family members at ESPN, has transformed what was once a difficult project into a success in a fairytale makeover that anyone associated with the Magic Kingdom can appreciate.
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