Spring Training is finally upon us, one of the most exciting times for fans of all 30 major league teams. For fans planning to attend the 2009 Atlanta Braves Spring Training, here is your insider's guide to making the most of your experience at Champion Stadium at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex.
Ballpark Information: Link
Champion Stadium boasts a listed capacity of 9,500, although many games draw far more spectators than that. With 80 percent of the seats between first and third bases, there is a close and intimate feel to the stadium.
Included in this capacity figure is a large sloping berm down the left field line, extending from third base to the scoreboard area in left-center field. The seating bowl includes an upper deck between the bases, a rarity for the Grapefruit League. Additionally, there are two large party decks, open air patios, and four luxury suites.
Built as the centerpiece to the 220-acre Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, Champion Stadium is a throwback to the glorious ballparks of America's past. For the first six Spring Training seasons, the park featured an old-school hand-operated scoreboard before finally being replaced by a large electronic scoreboard and message center.
For 2009, ticket prices range from $15 to $32, including a $4 premium charge for games against the Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox. There is no charge for parking.
Braves History at the Complex:
On May 28, 1997, the Braves had their "Grand Slam Opener" at Disney Field in a nationally televised game against the Cincinnati Reds. Televised around the country on TBS, the game had an "all-American" feel with red, white and blue bunting everywhere and a standing room only crowd. Disney has been the February and March home to the Atlanta Braves ever since.
When Disney originally introduced the plans for Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, there was no permanent tenant for the ballpark. Instead, it was to be used as a centerpiece for the entire Grapefruit League, with all Florida teams taking turns playing games there.
This idea changed when John Schuerholz saw the opportunity to move from the West Palm Beach ballpark the Braves shared with the Expos and move to the new state of the art facility.
The Atlanta Braves have played to full houses in nearly every game since their move from West Palm Beach to Disney. In fact, games against powerhouses like the Yankees and Cardinals have routinely drawn in excess of 11,000 spectators.
For each of the past four springs, the Braves have averaged over 9,000 fans per game, good for second in the Grapefruit League.
In addition to being the Florida home of the Atlanta Braves, Champion Stadium also houses events nearly every day of the year. Some notable events have included the inaugural World Baseball Classic, Tampa Bay Rays regular season series against the Rangers and Blue Jays, Orlando Rays AA Baseball, USSSA Softball Men's Majors World Series, AAU National Baseball Championships, and the Disney Channel Games and concert.
Each amateur baseball tournament hosted at the complex includes an opportunity for youth players from ages 14 and up to play games at Champion Stadium. This also includes Disney's Amateur Spring Training program, which has high school and college teams from all around the country playing on the "back" fields until after the Braves leave in March.
In fact, the complex includes four practice fields that the minor league players use throughout Spring Training, in addition to four more that the amateur teams play on.
Pool D of the inaugural World Baseball Classic played first round games at Champion Stadium in 2006. Consisting of the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Italy, and Australia, each game played to sell-out crowds.
Champion Stadium even helped the Tampa Bay Rays improve their season attendance numbers in 2007 and 2008. As the first ever major league games in Central Florida, the "Rays in Orlando" drew an average of 9,000 fans per game as the Rays went undefeated at Disney (6-0) the past two seasons.
What You Need to Know About the Area: Link
Champion Stadium sits within the No. 1 vacation destination in the world, the Walt Disney World Resort. This means that there is no shortage of places to stay and things to do during your trip.
There is a safe, family-friendly environment around the entire complex, as well as the expected cleanliness and friendliness that Disney can provide.
Just make sure that you arrive early to get the best parking. As part of the daily Spring Training activities at Disney's Wide World of Sports, there are literally thousands of amateur athletes taking part in soccer, lacrosse, softball, baseball, track, basketball, and cheerleading competitions at the same time as Atlanta Braves Spring Training.
Memorable Moments at Braves Spring Training:
For some reason, the one moment that always sticks out for me was John Rocker's return to the Braves in 2000, just for the spectacle of it all. Upon arriving at the park that day, I saw as many news trucks as they could cram in behind the Stadium and around the complex, and a line from the ticket window winding to the parking lot.
The game was against the Tigers, and there were lines of security guards up and down the base lines.
A much more lighthearted moment came in 2006 when the Braves took on The Netherlands WBC team in an exhibition game. Andruw Jones faced his long-time teammate John Smoltz, and Smoltzie made good on a pre-game promise by throwing Andruw a knuckleball.
But the one moment that really epitomizes the entire Braves team to me happened on a day in which no official game was played. The Mets were up from St. Lucie for a game on one of those typical Central Florida weather days. There were torrential downpours for hours on this day, and multiple attempts to play out the game.
Finally it was decided that it would take far too long to get the field into a playable condition, and the Mets had to get back down south, so the game was called. The scheduled starter that day for the Braves was John Smoltz, and he still wanted to get his work in.
So, much to the delight of the thousand or so fans who had stayed around, Smoltzie decided to pitch a simulated game right there in the Stadium in front of those fans.
Best Way to Get Autographs:
Probably the best way to get autographs at Champion Stadium requires a lot of time on your hands and even more patience. If you get there early enough, like even before the players arrive, you can get an up-close perspective of the Braves entering and leaving the Stadium.
As you enter the main gates to the complex, stay outside of the Stadium gates and head down the first base side and go all the way around the park and down the stairs until you reach Field 27.
Right there, which is actually behind center field of Champion Stadium, is a low fence where you can watch the players walking in from the player parking lot into the tunnel to their clubhouse. Just realize that these guys are coming to work and some players may not be able to stop, but there will be far less people to contend with than inside the Stadium.
This is also a great place to get autographs from the minor league players as they head out to their practice fields for the day. These guys are coming and going all day, and usually give more time signing autographs than the big leaguers rushing to and from their cars.
You may even spot one of the big league guys heading to the back fields to do some extra work. And you almost certainly can see Tom Glavine walking in with his bag of donuts and cup of coffee.
Naturally there are the typical ballgame feasts of hot dogs and Cracker Jack (after all, this place used to be called Cracker Jack Stadium), but the food options are surprisingly plentiful for a Spring Training game.
The main concession area is located directly behind home plate on the inner concourse of Champion Stadium. There you will find not only hot dogs, nachos, and beer, but also an amazing buffalo chicken sandwich. Two other concession stands can be found on the outer concourses along the first and third base lines.
Outside of the first base line is a Catcher's Cafe featuring gyros that are to die for and big ol' brats to go with the wide selection of beer and other drinks located at stands throughout the Stadium. Also located just outside of the Stadium is the Disney's Wide World of Sports Cafe, featuring a wide array of menu options.
When not at the ballpark, Orlando and Kissimmee feature some of the best dining choices in the country. Two of my favorites are the Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney's Yacht Club Resort and Charley's Steakhouse just around the corner from the ballpark in Kissimmee.
If southern barbecue is your thing, find Fat Boys BBQ on Highway 192 towards downtown Kissimmee. Get the barbecue beef sandwich and a sweet tea, and get a glimpse of what Central Florida used to look like in its old cowboy and rancher days.
Where to Stay:
Once again, this is Walt Disney World, so there are plenty of options. From the most opulent, Disney's Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, to the affordable and whimsical, Disney's All-Star Resorts, there is something for everyone if you wish to make a Disney vacation out of it.
Of course, there is more to Central Florida than just Disney when it comes to hotel rooms.
For the more upscale traveler there is the J.W. Marriott and Ritz-Carlton off of John Young Parkway, and the Peabody Hotel near the Convention Center. There is also the absolutely beautiful Gaylord Palms just a long Chipper Jones fly ball away from Champion Stadium on Osceola Parkway.
Kissimmee also offers a bevy of more budget-conscious options on the tourist corridor of Highway 192. There are literally hundreds of thousands of rooms to choose from in the Central Florida area, so finding a nice place to stay to meet your budget should not pose any problem.
What to do When Away from Champion Stadium:
Since I am a baseball fan first and foremost, it's pretty easy for me to figure out what to do when not taking in a Braves game. Go catch the Houston Astros at Osceola Heritage Park in Kissimmee. They play in a beautiful, recently remodeled stadium just miles away from Champion Stadium.
Another big attraction in the area is the shopping. The Orlando Premium Outlets feature high-end shopping at discounted prices, including a Tag Heuer factory store (I love watches), Tommy, Polo, Timberland, Nike, Oakley, you name it, they have it.
Downtown Orlando's Church Street and Universal's CityWalk are two of the most popular nighttime attractions for adults. Both places offer fun places to party the night away, just be prepared for large crowds and high prices.
Of course, this is Florida, so there are plenty of beach options as well. March in Central Florida is usually a beautiful time of year if you can avoid the rain. Head on over to Cocoa Beach just up the Beachline Expressway from Orlando and visit the world famous Ron Jon Surf Shop.
Or head a little further north to Daytona Beach and hope your day isn't rain shortened like this year's Daytona 500.
For a little rest and relaxation after watching countless baseball games, shopping, and swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, you can head on over to Port Canaveral and catch a cruise. With cruises leaving nearly every day of the week, you're bound to find something to fit your needs.
Since you will be watching the Braves play at Disney anyway, ask about the Disney Cruise Line home port there at Canaveral.
So there you have it, the official 2009 fan's guide to Atlanta Braves Spring Training. Oh, and don't forget your schedule. Link