Most sports fans who regularly watch ESPN have by now likely seen ads for ESPN the Weekend, which is coming up quickly at the end of February. It's an annual event at the Studios that is largely unknown to many, but it's hard to read between the hype and the reality of the event. ESPN the Weekend can be a very fun time of year for many, but one needs to understand the reality of the event, especially if you're used to some of the other events that have frequented the Studios.
First and foremost, ESPN the Weekend is the closest thing to a sports convention that most casual fans will experience. Because it's held at Walt Disney World, it gives families the opportunity to spend a day or two at the event while working it into their family vacation, as opposed to going to say Las Vegas for a trip with one purpose. This is fairly smart on Disney's part and it serves to allow the mostly male audience to have a welcome diversion from trips to Fantasyland. This event is definitely marketed towards sports fans and more specifically, sports fans that enjoy ESPN programming. There are really two core audiences that this event is marketed to; males, age 18-49 and boys, age 7-16. It's not to say women wouldn't enjoy themselves there, but it's like saying Super Soap Weekend is mostly geared to women, because that's the demographic that enjoys the product.
As to what to expect at ESPN the Weekend, the events here are somewhat similar to other events at the Studios and at the same time very different. Firstly, when you see the list of attending athletes, do not be fooled; Unlike Star Wars Weekends where one can meet the celebrities in attendance, just because an athlete is listed as coming to ESPN the Weekend, does NOT mean you can meet them. In fact, I'd estimate 90-95% of the athletes in attendance have no formal opportunity to actually meet them. So what does it mean when they say that a particular athlete will be there? Simply put, they'll be in the Studios for a show or event, where they'll be high up on a stage, take some questions and likely leave. A few athletes actually will participate in one of the shows and if you're lucky, you may be able to walk up to one as they are walking around and get an autograph or a hello. Personally, I'm not the kind of person to stalk an athlete and follow them around to ask for an autograph. Basically, assume you will see many athletes, but not actually meet any. For some people, that's perfectly alright while others will be put off. Unfortunately ESPN the Weekend isn't as intimate as other annual events, but it's not a total wash.
It's not all bad, because if you do like sports (and enjoy ESPN programming in one way or another), then you will really get a kick out of ESPN the Weekend. Personally, I'm a huge baseball fan and a casual football fan. I don't care for the NBA or NHL but still found myself really enjoying some of the events at ESPN the Weekend. Many events occur in front of the Sorcerer's Hat where they will tape some things for ESPN and other shows are simply for the fans in attendance. I'm not a fan of the events in front of the hat simply because you need to stand around (with no shade really) and watch what's going on. It's not that entertaining for me. There are, however, other events that are definitely worth your time. In past years, there have been game shows that involve ESPN talent and athletes that are really quite fun to watch, and if you fancy, participate in. Dream Job and Stump the Schwab are really quite fun and I recommend catching them at least once. In past years they have been held in the Sounds Dangerous theater so it's indoors and seated.
In addition to these events, there are non-televised panels to discuss a specific sports. The cast from Baseball Tonight and NFL Today will take questions from the audience, usually about a favorite team or about a player and sometimes even about themselves. If you really love one of these sports, definitely take an opportunity to go and see it. Last year I stopped by the Baseball Tonight show to ask a question and it was quite rewarding. There's still more events going on and they are located between Rock 'n Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror and these involve lots of physical activities such as a basketball court, DMX bike course, football field, soccer goals and more. What's really great about this is occasionally athletes will go and play with the kids in attendance and I can't tell you how many times I wanted to jump onto the field when I saw a particular athlete playing around. For kids, especially young boys age 10-15, this has to be a real thrill and the first time I saw this area, I remember thinking how much I wished I was young enough to enjoy this. If you're traveling with kids, spending time in this area will be a must.
The key to ESPN the Weekend is to go in with the right expectations. This isn't some uber-fantasy camp where you get to hang out with your favorite athletes all day long. Rather, this is an opportunity to share in the enjoyment of sports (with an ESPN slant) with others who also relish sports. If you consider yourself any kind of sports fan, I think you'll enjoy one aspect or two of the event. As we get closer and a list of who will be attending starts to appear, be sure not to confuse yourself as to what it means and you'll be ready for a fun time