Last week I experienced my first ESPN the Weekend event at the Disney-MGM Studios and the event looked very promising. There was a huge list of athletes and it looked like this year, they were really emphasizing recognizable name athletes from a number of sports, as opposed to meeting ESPN talent (of which there was still many). Athletes like Roger Clemens, Ben Roethlisberger, Gary Sheffield, Drew Brees, Michelle Kwan and a laundry list of other athletes that really appealed to me. ESPN the Weekend seemed to be a real step up from the other special weekend events at the Studios such as Star Wars Weekend where you have at best a B list celebrity or Super Soap Weekend which have a majority of celebs unknown to most of the public. This was going to be different.
ESPN the Weekend was different, but it wasn’t in the way I wanted it to be. In fact, it was a real disappointment to me because of how the event was billed to the public and what we actually got. Early on, we got a list of those who would be attending this year and the list of athletes and ESPN talent grew quickly. Disney even added another dozen or so athletes to the list a few days before the event was scheduled to begin. Obviously there would be a lot of baseball players since spring training was going on in Florida so it’s easy for players to stop by, especially anyone on the Atlanta Braves or playing the Braves since the Braves spring training games are at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.
As I was glancing over the list of athletes, I began pondering who I’d like to meet. Roger Clemens? Absolutely; The guy is going to be a hall of famer. Roethlisberger? He did win a super bowl, so why not. Annika Sorenstaim? That would be fun to see her. I began trying to think how they were going to setup the athletes for the park guests to meet. I envisioned a convention of athletes waiting to meet eager fans for a unique opportunity to meet the fans. And the reason I was thinking like this is because that’s how Star Wars and Super Soap Weekends handle their celebrities. Sure, they show up for special shows and interviews, but there are designated times of the day for the fans to meet the celeb and have something signed. As I got to the Studios, I quickly realized this was not the case at all.
Instead of a unique opportunity to meet athletes, I realized that list I had of all the athletes coming to the Studios were not there to meet guests, but to appear on an ESPN show that would be taped at the Studios. So rather than see Roger Clemens or Michelle Kwan, I had to stand in a sea of people in front of a stage in front of the Sorcerer’s Hat and watch them on a big screen and that was it. Some athletes walked around the park (surrounded by a brigade of Disney guest relation “handlers”) and if you really wanted to, you could walk with him or her and harass them for an autograph, but first it’s not my style to harass these people, especially with most of them there with their family and second, I want to meet them, not get something signed quickly while on their way to ride Tower of Terror.
Adding to the disappointment were the events planned for the event. The big draw was the live shows taped in front of the Sorcerer’s Hat. This event was really geared to those who think waking up at 5am and waiting outside of the Today Show for 4 hours to be seen on TV for maybe a few seconds or to go to Times Square and wait around for hours is a great idea. I had no desire to do that or to get on my cell phone to call home and have my mom see me wave on an 8 second delay.
In addition to the taped events, you had shows of “Stump the Schwab” at Sounds Dangerous which was good, except I’m no where near a sports nut as I’d need to be to have any hope of ever getting on that. There were also interviews of ESPN talent and athletes at the ABC Theater which was also pretty interesting. Most of the ESPN the Weekend events were in a backstage area beyond the Rock ‘n Roller Coaster courtyard that featured a number of activities like having your fastball measured for speed, or a race to home plate or a DMX bike competition or a slam dunk contest. These were fun to watch for a few minutes but I found myself thinking “I would have loved this if I was 14”.
I really came out of ESPN the Weekend believing the event was great for two kinds of people; anyone who thinks it’s a great idea to be on TV for a few seconds while waiting in a sea of people or any boy from about 8 to 16. The problem is, I wasn’t one of those people, nor were others I met that day at the parks. The point of these special weekends in my opinion is to give the park guest an opportunity to meet the famous people they’ve seen on TV (or the movies) and get an insiders look into how it’s all done. ESPN the Weekend does none of that. It felt more like someone dangling a dollar in front of someone and luring them closer, but never giving them that dollar.
What they need to do is keep the TV tapings because it is great to see real TV production in the Studios, but have a majority of the athletes showing up for the event be accessible to the park guests in meet-n-greets like we commonly have at Super Soap or Star Wars Weekends. Add some exhibits of sports memorabilia that showcases the kind of stuff you might only see at a particular sports’ Hall of Fame but with it all in one place. Set up a huge grill on the Streets of America and host a massive tailgate event (Disneyfied, of course).
The scope of the event detracted from what could be a great annual event. It’s great that Disney can get so many recognizable athletes and ESPN staff to come down for a weekend but they need to do more with it than what they’ve got. I would easily take half the list of athletes if it meant I could have an opportunity to meet them face to face. If you’re considering going to ESPN the Weekend next year you’ll need to consider these sort of things and ask yourself if you’re the kind of person who would enjoy it because I know plenty of people who loved standing in front of the stage when ESPN would be broadcasting and being right there. Me, however, I’m not one of those people and I think the majority of folks aren’t either. There’s real potential here with this event, but Disney just needs to remold the event to be more guest friendly.