One of the most popular places to compete in a sporting event is at Walt Disney World, but this wasn’t always the case. In the late 80s, Disney searched for a way to draw in athletes from all over the world to run marathons, compete in baseball and football, and enjoy camps all year round. Then they could celebrate at the Disney Parks afterward. Could it get better than that?
Disney opened the Wide World of Sports Complex on March 28, 1997, equipped to host 30 sports with their respective fields and equipment. While many couldn’t wait to compete at Walt Disney World, this sports complex didn’t become profitable for a long time and suffered from a massive lawsuit that few people know about.
What is ESPN Wide World of Sports?
Today, ESPN Wide World of Sports welcomes amateurs and professionals of 60 sports to compete at their sports complex. Until 2010, it was formerly known as the Wide World of Sports Complex until Disney acquired ESPN and renamed it. These 230 acres of land feature baseball and softball diamonds with stadium seating, multi-purpose arenas, a track and field complex, a box office, a gift shop, fantastic American dining, and more.
Prior to COVID-19, more than 200 events took place each year. ESPN Wide World of Sports also offers off-season training and camps, so Guests can be entertained all year round.
A history about the complex can’t be started without mentioning this lawsuit.
The Wide World of Sports Lawsuit
While a sports theme park wasn’t a novel idea, Disney had to pay some serious money after announcing the construction of the Wide World of Sports.
An architect named Nicholas Stracick and a former umpire named Edward Russell who were both very passionate about sports created an idea for a complex called Sports Island where they could host sports camps for children 365 days a year. The 150-acre facility would include fields and arenas that could cater up to 30 sports. In fact, Stracick and Russell were so enthusiastic about the idea that they founded All Pro Sports Camp Inc. and proposed the project to Disney. The sports duo was invited to Disney for a formal meeting to discuss Sports Island and received great feedback. While All Pro Inc. would handle fundraising and run the facility once it opened, Disney would design the Sports Island and lease All Pro Inc. the land. However, Disney ultimately rejected the proposal, saying there wasn’t room for it in their budget.
Four years later, Disney announced Wide World of Sports with nearly 88 similarities to Sports Island. In fact, All Pro Inc. claimed they never received their 350-page plan back from executives and accused Disney of copying their idea. Therefore, in 1997, All Pro Inc. sued Disney for billions of dollars for theft, fraud, breach of confidentiality, and more, while Disney executives, including CEO Michael Eisner, claimed that he had never heard of Sports Island and that they had been planning Wide World of Sports for years prior.
A jury ultimately ruled in All Pro Inc.’s favor, saying beyond all reasonable doubt that Disney stole Sports Island and claimed it as their own with malicious intent. The judge awarded Stracick and Russell $240 million, but Disney appealed it, defending that Wide World of Sports hadn’t even been profitable yet. Disney and All Pro Inc. ultimately settled the lawsuit out of court and awarded All Pro Inc. an unspecified amount of money.
Despite the back and forth of the All Pro Inc lawsuit, construction that had begun in the summer of 1995 was completed. With this new complex, Disney executives hoped to expand its market to include sports-lovers. That way, they could drive in more Guests to Walt Disney World and grow sponsorship revenue. Competing teams would be encouraged to buy packages that included hotel, dining, and theme park tickets, bringing more money to Disney. In addition, local spectators could pay to watch their favorite sports or perhaps a competition they’ve never seen before (Did you know the first trampoline competition was hosted during the Wide World of Sports’ opening year?)
The grand opening in 1997 featured a sold-out spring training MLB game between the Atlanta Braves and Cincinnati Reds. That summer, the Wide World of Sports hosted a week-long Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Boys Basketball Championship.
As mentioned by Disney executives in the All Pro Inc. lawsuit, earning back the $100 million spent on construction was a long-term plan. As much as Disney might have recommended Guests to stay on property, many teams commuted to the sports complex from a local Orlando hotel. The best way to earn money was by promoting authenticity; if athletes viewed this complex as a legitimate location to train and compete, they would come in flocks. Luckily, appearing authentic was a financial success.
In February 2010, Wide World of Sports was rebranded since Disney owned ESPN. With this acquisition, Disney installed HD video scoreboards, a brand-new audio system across all the arenas and stadiums, as well as a broadcast production site. They also added new pavilions where athletes could enjoy downtime between games. Celebrity athletes such as Gymnast Shawn Johnson, Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receiver Santonio Holmes, and Softball Pitcher Jennie Finch kicked off the celebration of the new complex and were invited to a reception afterward at the re-themed ESPN Wide World of Sports Grill (formerly called What’s Next? Café).
Things to Do at ESPN Wide World of Sports
Over three million athletes have competed at the ESPN Wide World of Sports. Many famous tournaments, some started by Disney, have been held there during its nearly 25-year existence. Starting in 1997, ESPN Wide World of Sports has hosted the Pop Warner Super Bowl, a tournament for youth football, every year. This famous sports complex also hosted the Disney Channel Games in 2008 and 2009 and most recently held the 2020 NBA Bubble, and these are just a few events. Walt Disney World hopes to accommodate the Special Olympics in 2022 as well.
What many athletes love at ESPN Wide World of Sports are the services catered to them. Food services are unique, as they can deliver boxed lunches directly to your team. You can hire a sports photographer to take shots of single athletes or an entire team. In addition, custom merchandise can be ordered to keep the memories forever!
Transportation to and from the ESPN Wide World of Sports is available from the All-Star resorts and other select resorts. Parking is free, but an admission fee is required for visitors who are not athletes or coaches. Adult tickets cost around $20, and children tickets cost about $15. Strollers are permitted on property but prohibited from specific arenas, such as the Jostens Center and HP Field House (strollers must be parked in designated areas outside). If a Guest requires a wheelchair, it can be rented at the Information Booth.
Spectators and athletes of every age can also enjoy some casual American dining at ESPN Wide World of Sports Grill (with valid admission to the complex).
The ESPN Wide World of Sports certainly had some ups and downs throughout its history. Have you ever competed at this famous sports complex and enjoyed the parks afterward? Have you watched as a spectator? Let us know in the comments below!