Disney World and Cocoa Expo Draw the Amateur Athletes
By Patrick Peterson
A new kind of tourist has been rolling into town, and they wear special shoes. They still come in the family van, but it’s loaded with gloves, bats, soccer balls, running shoes and cleats. These visitors are tense and ready to compete.
Major league sports teams aren’t the only game in town that can boost the economy. Amateur competitors have done plenty to boost tourism, and they will have an even bigger economic effect in coming years.
In Cocoa and at Orlando’s Walt Disney World, sports programs bring thousands of young athletes and their families to enjoy Central Florida. Both the Cocoa Expo, which is under construction, and ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, began as baseball parks for Spring Training for professional teams. Now, they have plans to grow to accommodate other sports.
Aimed at the Amateur
Already well-developed, the 220-acre Disney complex hosts the Atlanta Braves during Spring Training and presents an average of 350 amateur events each year. The Cocoa complex plans to build new baseball fields, as well as indoor facilities for basketball and volleyball. With a $40 million building proposal, the Brevard County complex expects to eventually have 17 baseball fields and field houses for basketball and volleyball.
The programs of both facilities are aimed at young athletes and their families. “The bread and butter are youth events,” said Darrel Fry, sports media director at Walt Disney World Resort.
There are several categories for competitors. Some events are arranged through nationwide leagues, such as the Pop Warner Super Bowl, which gives the national organization a place to hold its championship. Other events are open to any team, as long as they have a record of participation to help put them among the right competitors.
“We have any number of tournaments the coach could sign the team up for, and other tournaments that you have to qualify the team for,” Fry said. Teams that come independently are carefully scrutinized and matched against other teams that have a similar skill level.
“They judge by the age of the players and the leagues they compete in to make sure the teams are evenly matched,” Fry explained.
Other events include several marathons and half-marathons, which bring tens of thousands of racers and their families to the park. For the families who arrive with their youth athletes, a togetherness vacation in the park is often as important as the competition. “They get a family vacation out of it,” Fry said. “It’s been a great piece of the Walt Disney World Resort.”
In Cocoa, the Expo developers plan to create a sports park that could bring upwards of one million visitors to Brevard County, according to Expo Vice President Brad Traina. “We’re progressing slowly but surely,” he added.
Built in 1964, the structure was the Spring Training home of several Houston professional baseball teams until 1985. It then hosted college and high school tournaments and, in 1993, became the Florida Marlins’ Spring Training home for a time. Renovation plans began in 2011.
Eventually, the facility plans to offer a 100,000 sq. ft. gym, with 11 basketball and 14 volleyball courts. A 30,000 sq. ft. facility will house cardio and weight equipment, and the baseball fields will have 16 bullpens and 15 batting cages.
A 40-foot video scoreboard will be the crowning glory of the facility, which has experienced numerous delays. Developers believe the complex eventually will compete with Disney to attract teams that want to combine a trip to Florida with a chance to play other teams. “They’re part of our competition,” Traina said. “We’re just a little different experience and a little different price point.”
ESPN Wide World of Sports
When Disney acquired ESPN in 1996, the ESPN Wide World of Sports was created in Central Florida. The 220-acre sports park and 165,000 sq. ft. field house includes 56 high-definition cameras and 40 high-definition sports screens. The equipment can capture and display video from anywhere in the Disney park system.
According to Fry, the addition of ESPN’s video experience has been great for the resort. “It’s been a tremendous addition to what we’re able to provide,” he added. “We have cameras on just about all the fields. The games are being videotaped and sometimes they’re being televised on ESPN3.com.”
The cooperation between ESPN and Disney gives guests a total sports experience.
“They can go back to the hotel room and see highlights of the game,” Fry said.
The Atlanta Braves have held Spring Training in the sports complex for 20 years. Additionally, the Tampa Bay Bucs and the Orlando Magic have training camps there. Many other sports clinics meet at the complex to help professional athletes improve their speed, quickness and technique.
It’s no secret that visiting youth athletes love being on the same field as their heroes. “They’re playing their game on the same field as the Atlanta Braves and sitting in the same dugout,” Fry said.