You're a Good Sport, Mickey Mouse

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By Don Oldenburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 24, 2003

Most traffic driving north on Osceola Parkway on this simmering summer morning is heading to Magic Kingdom, MGM Studios or the other nearby Disney parks. We take the less-traveled left at the first light onto Victory Way -- along with just four other cars.

For tens of millions of visitors who immerse themselves in Orlando's fantasies and thrills, Disney's Wide World of Sports (WWS) is nothing more than a head scratch on the highway to somewhere else. Not even on the map that came with our rental car, it's a road-sign attraction lost on the list of better-known flights of the imagination.

But for many amateur athletes, the WWS complex is a field of dreams. While the fictitious baseball diamond carved from an Iowa cornfield in that 1989 baseball movie attracted apparitions of yesteryear's greatest players, these sports fields are about tomorrow's stars.

First stop is WWS's Cracker Jack Stadium to cheer on my oldest son and his Potomac Generals teammates, who for the next seven days will play against teams from across the country during the 2003 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) 17-and-Under National Championship tournament.

Some of those innings play out on the four professional-grade baseball fields of WWS's Baseball Quadraplex outside the stadium, but each team gets to play some games on the first-class turf inside the 9,500-seat facility recently renamed for the ballpark staple ("Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jack . . .").

Designed with the conveniences of a modern ballpark, the stadium includes towering archways, green tile roofing and tile flooring, tropical clay walls and field-cozy seats that lend an aura of bygone ball fields. It's a sweet ballpark -- so sweet that the Atlanta Braves call it home during spring training and the Orlando Rays play minor league ball here these summer nights.

But for this morning, and actually most days, it's where a bunch of baseball-lovin' boys hit fastballs and steal bases in the best ballpark they've ever set cleat in.

Like the movie said, "If you build it, they will come" -- and they do. But WWS isn't just about the Great American Pastime. Minus the usual fanfare and hype, Disney opened this $125 million vision of a sports complex six years ago, not only to incorporate a world-class sports venue into Uncle Walt's dream but to lure athletes, fans and spectators to Disney's hotels, restaurants and parks.

Its first public event in March 1997 was professional -- the Cincinnati Reds vs. the Atlanta Braves in a spring training game. A week before that, at his first golf clinic for minority kids, Tiger Woods hit a ball the length of two football fields plus a baseball field.

From aerobics to wrestling, and junior golf camps and jump-rope championships to scholastic wrestling duels and rugby matches, WWS hosts more than 40 different sports and 30 championship events each year. Its track and field complex, with its state-of-the-art surfaces, is a premier competition and training facility. The Centre Court Stadium features 11 tennis courts and 1,000 permanent courtside seats. Teams from as far away as Austria recently competed in Disney's Ultimate In-line Hockey Experience on double rinks under one roof. Next week? High school girls' field hockey and volleyball.

After the game, we shake off a close loss and head to the Milk House -- not for a frothy glass of nutrition but to check out the hot hoops tournament that's about over. The Milk House is WWS's old-style, 30,000-square-foot field house equipped with six full-size basketball courts (two on an elevated level overlooking the other four) and seating for 5,000.

WWS admission gets you into the events you came for and any others scheduled that day (except for professional games). A board near the box office lists all contests and is always worth a glance, since there's no keeping track of what's happening here. This day, the 17-and-under girls' basketball is finishing up, and the 17-and-under boys' showcase basketball is beginning.


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© 2003 The Washington Post Company

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