I went to ESPN the Weekend last year for the first time and was very dissapointed with the event. You can find my thoughts from the 2007 event here and as I sat down to write this year's report, I looked back to 2007 to get an idea of what's changed and how 2008 has been different from 2007, if at all. I think this year's event was fun but still suffers from the same problem that past events have suffered from; namely, a lack of guest interaction with the athletes we come to see.
ESPN the Weekend brings in a lot of A-list athletes to the venue and makes the event seem like it's any sports fans' dream to be there. Disney bills it as a convention of athletes and ESPN personalities with you in the middle. Good luck though on actually meeting these athletes. Interaction between guests and the athletes they invite is minimal. There's no formal opportunity to actually meet athletes and get their autographs, which is a staple of Star Wars Weekends as well as Super Soap Weekend. The closest you can get to that is either being part of impromptu events and scheduled shows but the reality is those are few and far between. I was in a showing of "Stump the Schwab" late on Sunday afternoon when the host of the event asked the guests who has met an athlete this weekend and I estimate perhaps 3 or 4 hands went up from a packed theater of over a hundred.
To me, it's sad that once again Disney has missed an opportunity to make a unique event for guests. Disney World is about being the place where dreams come true. I would estimate that it's not much of a risk for me to say that most guests there have a dream of meeting their favorite player(s) but there's not an opportunity to do so.
I can say that the events that were scheduled were well executed and a lot of fun to participate in. The theater where Sounds Dangerous is housed was closed for the weekend to hold showings of "Dream Job" and "Stump the Schwab", both of which were a lot of fun to watch, even if they weren't live at all. The fun guests had on stage along with select athletes was a treat. Along with those shows, there were also some Baseball Tonight and NFL Live question and answer shows in the Theater of the Stars on Sunset Boulevard that allowed guests to ask questions of ESPN talent as well as athletes on a panel. It was interesting, depending on the questions asked (usually a guest asking about the potential for their favorite team to win it all in the coming season) and the panelists were insightful and intriguing.
Once again, the Rock 'n Roller Coaster courtyard was transformed into a sports zone where guests of all ages could participate in a number of sports events, from seeing how fast your fastball is to slam dunk competitions to X-Games style bike dirt tracks. There was a healthy mix of events for all ages and occasionally athletes would show up, such as the Harlem Globetrotters playing pick up 3 on 3 basketball games to NFL stars playing flag football with kids.
In front of the Sorcerer's Hat is where most of the live tapings occurred and it left me totally uninterested. I had no desire to stand in a sea of people, trying to get my right arm in a live show for some ESPN show. This is Disney World and I want to be part of the magic, not off to the side of it. Like the lack of guest interactivity mentioned earlier, this was another example of a swing and a miss on Disney's part to make this sort of event engaging for the guest.
I felt the event did a good job of appealing to guests who weren't die-hard sports fans as well. Most of the events were friendly enough to the casual sports fan that I think nearly anyone who appreciates sports on any level could enjoy. The Sports Zone with all of the different sports exhibits was very family friendly and it didn't seem like husbands and older male siblings had been cast off to go do these events while the rest of the family did something else. Rather, I saw most of the people at the various ESPN the Weekend events going together as families. In addition, working in everything you want to see in one day is a very real possibility. I found the schedule of events to be easy to navigate and you could do it all and see it all in one or two days without much hassle.
While I did enjoy the event, I think Disney really hamstrung their event by not engaging in the level of guest interactivity that you find in the other signature weekend events at the Studios, like Star Wars and Super Soap Weekends. Disney lists dozens of these great athletes from various sports that will be attending and it seems to me to be very misleading when you realize that just because an athlete is attending, doesn't mean you may see them. Adding a real face-to-face opportunity to meet athletes would really elevate the event into a premier event that could allow guests to meet their favorite players and go back home after and say to family and friends something along the lines of, "...and at Walt Disney World, I lived my dream and met _______". That's the sort of reaction Disney harps on and that is what is holding back ESPN the Weekend from being a fantastic, must-see event.
So that leaves me with the question of can I recommend this event. Should you go next year? Who should go? Like any of the weekend events at the Studios, if you are a die-hard sports fan, you should certainly attend. If you really enjoy watching sports and watch quite a bit of ESPN and/or Sports Center, ESPN the Weekend is the perfect event for you. If you're more of a casual fan and perhaps like a local team in one sport, I can't say I'd recommend the event for you. It's not to say not to go, but I wouldn't plan a trip purely for ESPN the Weekend, which is a sentiment shared by others I spoke to this past weekend. Unfortunately, ESPN the Weekend is still disappointing, but it's not a waste of your time and perhaps will become a much better event in the future.