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For Disney, It's a Whole New Ball Game

There's plenty of room for field sports but no swimming pool or ice rink, at least not yet

If Disney builds it, people will come. Even before the company's Wide World of Sports complex became fully open and operational outside Orlando, the facility had more than 100 groups and events booked to use the first-class gyms, fields, baseball stadium, and field house.

People may not have heard about this one-of-a-kind sports playpen yet, but Reggie Williams, the vice president of Walt Disney World Sports, expects the 200-acre, palm-studded neighbor to the Magic Kingdom to eventually make its mark - and not simply for its striking classical Florida architecture.

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"I hope some day you won't be able to say you're really a sports fan until you've been to Disney's Wide World of Sports, that you've checked into this place, played here, or spectated here," Williams says.

Seated in Disney Sports's transition headquarters, he is attired in golf shirt, not a button-down oxford. A mountain bike used in commuting rests against one wall, and in the reception area down the hall, a Ping-Pong table awaits visitors.

Williams, a former Dartmouth University and Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, is a bit like a kid in a candy shop.

He is a point man for a Disney venture with as much money and muscle as ambition.

When he came on board four years ago, Disney hadn't yet merged with CapCities/ABC. Now, ABC's corporate might stands squarely behind the complex and even accounts for its name: Disney's Wide World of Sports, a name it shares with the long-running anthology show.

Asked to identify the most exciting event on the calendar thus far, Phil Lengyel, senior vice president of Walt Disney World Sports, says, "It isn't there yet. We book new things every single day."

The menu runs the gamut, from Gulf Coast Rookie League baseball to powerlifting to youth softball, with a generous sprinkling of major-league caliber events thrown in.

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Disney traditionally prefers "soft openings," in which the bugs are worked out before the curtain is formally lifted. In the case of the sports complex, though, the paint was hardly dry when the first events were held.

On March 28, TBS trained its cameras on a preseason baseball game hosted by the Atlanta Braves, who have signed a 20-year deal to use the facilities for spring training. The National Football League Quarterback Challenge, a high school basketball all-star game (the Nike Hoop Summit), and the US Men's Clay Court tennis championships followed in April, again with national TV coverage. The final "grand opening" event is a track meet on May 31.

The goal here, Williams says, is to "celebrate participation in sports" at all levels. A key to reaching people at the grass-roots, he says, has been enticing the Amateur Athletic Union to relocate from Indianapolis to Orlando.

The AAU has operated in the long shadows cast by professional sports, yet each year it sponsors over 200 national championships and 32 sports programs, many expressly for school-age athletes.

Williams, who was once an AAU wrestler, considers the arrangement beneficial to both parties. "It was our first partnership and it was the one that was critical for our success and for the AAU's continued viability in the 21st century," he says.

He acknowledges that the grass-roots sports landscape is currently very crowded. "The AAU is competing against McDonald's, against Coca-Cola, against Nike, against YMCAs, against Boys Clubs and Girls Clubs, and against schools," he adds.

"It's our position that we want them all to thrive and be successful. We aren't siding with the AAU competitively against other organizations or vice versa. We're positioning ourselves to be the Switzerland of sports."

Hey, it's a small, small world and Disney has always had broad horizons.

The Wide World of Sports complex has already signed an agreement with South Africa to allow that country's athletes to train and compete at the complex. The Harlem Globetrotters are on board, too, and will make the field house the team's official training site.

At times, Disney may appear to be going in too many directions sports-wise. Williams grants that "there is no script here," yet he says the venture is loosely "defined by the venues we have constructed."

The facilities can accommodate at least 32 sports. Disney's own literature, however, heralds that it may have "overlooked a few."

The list runs from baseball, basketball, and football to martial arts, fencing, wrestling, and roller hockey. There is no ice rink nor swimming pool, but both are considered logical second-phase additions. (Williams says the YMCA has a world-class natatorium only 10 or 15 minutes away.)

The most striking physical features are the lush expanses of green practice fields and the "Florida Picturesque" architecture of the lemony field house and 7,500-seat baseball stadium.

During a tour of the Braves' future spring training home, general manager John Schuerholz expressed his team's delight in switching from West Palm Beach to the edge of the Magic Kingdom amusement park. In speaking of the growing fusion between sports and entertainment, he says, "We think the ballpark blends perfectly with this concept. The players are very excited about playing here and their families are even more excited."

Schuerholz anticipates many people "will hear about this great facility and come over to watch a game."

Disney's Lengyel doesn't deny that business considerations are a driving force in building the Wide World of Sports complex.

"We're always striving to find ways to entertain our guests ... and sports is entertainment," he says. "This is one way we can give repeat visitors a new reason to to return."

Disney's gleaming sports "city" may create new competition for Indianapolis, which bills itself as "the amateur sports capital of America."

Lengyel doesn't think Disney poses a threat, though. "We're a vacation destination. Indianapolis is an amateur sports capital. People aren't spending an extra four, eight, or 10 vacation days there."

In recent years, Disney has escalated its sports involvement, producing sports-themed movies, hosting a marathon, an Indy-style auto race, and two pro golf tournaments at Disney World, and venturing into team ownership with the National Hockey League's Anaheim Mighty Ducks and baseball's Anaheim Angels.

Williams says that owning a pro team in Florida is "an option," yet the state already appears saturated with three National Football League teams, two National Hockey League clubs, and, beginning next season, a second big-league baseball team (Tampa Bay).

For now, he says just paying attention to the growing number of people who make sports a lifestyle choice is enough.

"It is a very exciting time to be in the sports marketplace," he says, "and we have a unique, yet challenging role because we're part of a global brand that's about magic, that's about Mickey Mouse, that's about happiness."

Disney's cartoon creations, however, will not be fixtures here. "Certainly there may be some youth teams that may love to have Mickey or Minnie Mouse give out their medals, and we certainly will consider that," says Williams, "but Mickey doesn't live here. Our goal is the authenticity of the sports experience."

Ingredients in what Williams expects to be a success story are top-rate facilities with flexible seating for greater intimacy, cleanliness, guest services, and a family atmosphere.

"We will not sermonize," he says. On the other hand, he anticipates rules outlining the consequences for fighting and profanity. "Hopefully one day you won't ever look for it in the contract," he says, adding that good sportsmanship can become part of the visitor mind-set.

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