Disney getting into whole new ballgame Restaurant: The Power Plant's ESPN Zone restaurant is about to open its doors and open a whole new field of entertainment for Disney.

July 05, 1998|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

When the ESPN Zone opens its doors in Baltimore's Power Plant next weekend, the Walt Disney Co. puts its future as a dominant player in the regional entertainment market on the line.

"What's at stake is the whole concept of taking Disney brands and affiliated brands like ESPN and launching entertainment centers in regional markets, particularly urban markets, outside our theme parks," said Scott P. Dickey, director of marketing and sales for Disney Regional Entertainment Inc. "What's at risk is whether we deliver the same level of guest experience. There's a strong belief that we can."

Few are betting against Disney, the parent company of ESPN.

But there will be challenges, even for the entertainment wizards.

"They are about to find out just how much equity they have in [the ESPN] brand," said Pat Esgate, an industry consultant and president of Esgate and Associates Inc., in Nyack, N.Y. "Is it enough to get people up out of their chairs and in their cars to go there?"

It is unclear how many people even realize the relationship between ESPN and Disney -- a fact that is not clarified by a visit to the Zone, because nowhere does the Disney brand name appear.

"I don't know if it's going to have the impact it would have if people knew it was Disney," Esgate said.

The estimated $15 million ESPN Zone is scheduled to open one week from today, with an all-day outside sports festival the day before that planners hope will become an annual tradition. There is talk of a "soft" opening this weekend that will invite random guests to test the latest Inner Harbor attraction. It is even possible that the doors may be unlocked to the generalpublic for limited hours prior to the official opening.

For Baltimore, Disney's latest sports entertainment concept -- coupled with the Hard Rock Cafe and Barnes & Noble, slated to open next month -- offers the chance for the long-beleaguered Power Plant to finally succeed and draw tourists eastward toward the future Port Discovery and other attractions.

"It very clearly extends the harbor," said David Cordish, president and chairman of the Cordish Co., which is revitalizing the Power Plant. "If you're a conventioneer or a tourist, there's more to do now than just eat dinner."

Parking problems have been addressed up front with valet parking available for Power Plant customers on weeknights and throughout the weekends, at $3 for the first two hours.

The ESPN Zone is a 35,000-square-foot sports entertainment complex with two levels designed to feel like a stadium, where 200 customers can play actual and virtual games on the upper level at the same time. It features three new, proprietary games: hockey, baseball and a football toss game.

In classic ESPN style, there are healthy doses of irreverence throughout: the Vince Lombardi bust that looks like it's carved of Cheddar cheese; a painting that depicts a mock signing of the Declaration of Independence, renamed "The Game of Football" featuring several sports greats from Baltimore teams; a replica of Wrigley Field made entirely of assorted Wrigley's chewing gum wrappers; hot dog buns positioned around the doorway, filled with hot dog-like tubes containing soil from 30 major league baseball fields around the country.

While waiting in line to reach the hostess stand, patrons can play on touch screens that instantly replay favorite sports moments. And, of course, a trip to the restroom doesn't have to mean an instant away from sports -- they are equipped with television screens, too.

A screening room offers 10 guests at a time the chance to sit in faux leather easy chairs with speakers in the headrests that can be adjusted for channel and volume, in front of a 16-by-13-foot curved screen, flanked by a dozen smaller screens. The Zone has more than 220 screens in all.

With 80 percent of Americans self-defined as sports fans, Disney isn't too worried about the 20 percent who say they aren't.

"You don't have to be a hard-core sports fan to enjoy the facility," Dickey said. "We're not going to promote it to people who aren't sports fans. But if they're here, we're going to make sure they have a good time."

He expects that the screening room will appeal to locals, while tourists and families will probably gravitate toward the studio grill dining area. The groups will converge upstairs in the game area, he said.

The plan is to get the concept 98 percent right in Baltimore and perfect the other 2 percent in the nine months before rolling out the next ESPN Zone in Chicago next summer. Dickey said he expects that Disney will announce two more locations within a few months.

The Zone's creators are forecasting more than a half million visitors a year -- 50,000 a month. Neighboring Hard Rock received more than a million visits its first year.

Location-based entertainment is an area that Disney has studied for about eight years.

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