After my recent trip to Orlando, I now have the answer to the question that millions of parents and children ask on a daily basis.
If the Happiest Place on Earth is defined by the Magic Kingdom with the Iconic Castle and Princesses galore, then my answer is No! I must confess that the Happiest Place on earth resides in another Magical Realm within the World of Mickey Mouse! For thousands of youth athletes and me, the happiest place on earth is the ESPN Wide World of Sports at Walt Disney World! This Kingdom at Disney World is completely and totally devoted to all things sports. For the youth sports athlete, Disney grants the wish of "going pro" every day with their pristine fields, stadiums, amenities, and even Professional ESPN coverage with Kevin Corke. Sprinkle in impromptu visits by actual pro athletes and even Mickey Mouse and Goofy and "Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo" and you have Disney Magic!
My journey to Disney World began at a huge welcome party for over 3,000 youth soccer players ages 9-19, from 230 elite youth soccer teams from 19 countries around the world. The Disney Cup International is a mini-World Cup. Our welcome party was hosted at the House of Blues, where we all watched the final game of the World Cup. All three floors packed with kids and parents erupted when Germany scored the winning goal at the end of overtime. The eruption continued with Radio Disney's DJ Cole spinning song after song. The celebration was in full swing!
I arrived at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Monday morning. A sea of colorful jerseys painted a Technicolor vision only imagined by Walt Disney. The Disney Cup International was beginning, as was the AAU Summer Basketball Championship, a Baseball World Series, as well as a softball tournament. The Kingdom was as bustling as the other amusement pParks, with one exception: you could just feel the competition in the air! All of the athletes and their families had worked extremely hard to enter this Kingdom. Some teams had to win their way here, while others had worked devilishly hard in fundraising efforts to pay their way to Orlando in order to compete.
The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex is opened all year long. They offer their state-of-the-art facilities for all sports. Football, basketball, baseball, softball, track and field, cheer, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, 7 v 7, and even archery are just part of the lengthy list of their Wide World and all who are all welcomed. Every state of the art accommodation is available for athletes with special needs to compete as well. If your sport competes in the fall, tutors will be provided to keep student athletes up to speed in the classroom!
The professional treatment begins with sports bags being collected at the front gate. Yes, Disney Magic will make sure all the gear will be on the correct field and ready to go. This allows the athletes to relax and enter their Kingdom with time to drink in the extraordinary experience.
At the soccer fields, music was pumped out to the athletes and fans. Where it was coming from, I have no idea. It was magical and I will not ask questions. I heard many languages singing and humming along to the most popular songs between games.
As a sports fan, I was treated to some incredible competition. I took in a soccer game between 12-year-olds from Brazil and a local team from South Florida. I must say parents are parents. I do not speak Portuguese, but "mom speak" is universal. Stains on a jersey, hydration, play your best, pride, frustration with a call, saying I love you to your child no matter what the score are just instinctive to all moms of young super stars! Could I have just watched a future Neymar or Clint Dempsey?
A brief Florida rain shower made me take shelter inside the HP Field House. All I can say is, "Wow." The level of competition I witnessed at the AAU Summer Basketball game was phenomenal! This U15 boys game showed the same promise of impressive talent as was on display on the soccer fields. Many current NBA and WNBA stars have competed in this very same championship!
I was equally star-struck by the kids I saw on the baseball field. These youngsters were playing up to the standard set by the Atlanta Braves, who call the stadium their Spring Training home. Every boy looked like a pro out on that field of dreams.
My sports feast continued, quite literally, when I got to enjoy the great selection of food trucks offering all sorts of healthy and fun food and beverages. Teams were capturing their memories with Disney photographs and customized T-Shirts. Film crews were everywhere capturing the plays of the day. For youth sports enthusiasts, this was the perfect day in the perfect place. The only knock on my (almost) perfect day was the fact that I had missed Drew Brees and his 7-on-7 Tournament and Passing Camp by a mere week. My family is probably grateful, because I might never have come home again!
If you think this is just a dream and that your child's sport team could not possibly afford such a luxury trip, think again! This is Disney, people! Disney and ESPN have ideas on fundraisers for all sports teams. They believe that all children should have this experience and will work with you to make that dream a reality.
Love sports but don't have kids on teams that compete on an elite level? Not a problem, folks! The RunDisney program offers many races for the entire family! You can start with the Diaper Dash, move through the Princess Run, and one day achieve the Goofy Challenge! (A full (26.2 mile) marathon, followed by a half (13.1mile) marathon the next day. Pixie Dust sold separately on this one!
After 12 hours in MY HAPPIEST PLACE on EARTH, I was looking for Aladdin and the Magic Carpet to whisk me back to my hotel! While relaxing, I turned on the TV and found ESPN. They were showing the hilights of the day from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. Yes, there was a Top 10, too! I had just witnessed 4 of them. My immersion in the Disney experience was complete.
The young athletes all come to compete with the best in their sport. They also come for another reason: It's DISNEY WORLD! You know from seeing so many happy faces that they have found the perfect way to achieve a work hard /play hard balance, with hard working and dedicated sport parents and siblings all playing together in the 4 major amusement parks.
This could be the only place on earth where you can witness a tall basketball player reach out and place a smaller kid that he does not know, or speak the same language, on his shoulders so the little one will have a better view of the "Frozen" Stage Show and Fireworks! Both were singing, "Let it Go" at the top of their lungs, along with every other person at the show. Cinderella said it best, "A dream is a wish that your heart makes." Thank you, Mr. Disney! My Wish came true and your entire Kingdom truly is the Happiest Place on Earth!