In the zone

The concepts of fun and sensory overload enter a new dimension as ESPN and Disney meld TV and reality at their Inner Harbor playground.

  • Watch a game or play a game at ESPN Zone, which features an arcade and a restaurant filled with TV screens.
Watch a game or play a game at ESPN Zone, which features an arcade… (Sun photo by Barbara Haddock…)
July 09, 1998|By Edward Gunts | Sun Reporter

TV or not TV? That was once the question, but not anymore.

The lines are disappearing between the two-dimensional realm of television and the three-dimensional worlds of retailing and entertainment. In Washington, viewers of the Discovery Channel can flick off the TV and explore the channel's flagship store, which features books, videos and other goods linked with Discovery's programming. In Atlanta, news junkies can tour the Cable News Network studios and headquarters at CNN Center.

But the newest and perhaps most immersive example of this genre is ESPN Zone, the sports-themed dining and entertainment "experience" that will open at 11 a.m. Sunday inside the Power Plant at the Inner Harbor, after a gala preview Saturday night.

ESPN Zone was conceived as an extension of the ESPN cable network, a leader in sports programming. Its designers were instructed to create a destination that would be the physical embodiment of what viewers see on ESPN, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Co.

The concept was developed jointly by ESPN and Disney Regional Entertainment, a Disney affiliate established in 1996 to create entertainment concepts for metropolitan and suburban markets in the United States and abroad.

Unlike the nearby Hard Rock Cafe and Planet Hollywood, branches of well-established chains, Baltimore's ESPN Zone is the first in the world -- the prototype for a series of dining and entertainment complexes.

Designing a project such as ESPN Zone is the supreme architectural challenge for the infotainment age: to create a three-dimensional expression for a medium that most people experience only in two dimensions.

The in-house designers for Disney and ESPN responded by creating a sensory-rich, technologically sophisticated, high-energy environment that is equal parts nightclub, amusement arcade, restaurant, broadcast studio and sports shrine. If it were possible to dive into the TV screen and become part of the action on the other side, this is what it would feel like.

For fans of the network, one of the most gratifying features is likely to be the Zone's distinctive personality. ESPN is known for having commentators who are passionate, outspoken and authoritative, and the psyche of the place is remarkably in sync with the psyche of the organization.

This is not a sterile or generic or even particularly sanitized environment, but one that reflects the wit and irreverence of ESPN and its on-air personalities. ESPN has also gone to great lengths to tailor its attraction to the Baltimore market, paying homage to local heroes such as

Brooks Robinson, Cal Ripken Jr. and Johnny Unitas.

Plenty of room ESPN Zone occupies the lower levels of the northernmost third of the cavernous Power Plant, the early-1900s landmark on Pratt Street that Cordish Company is converting to a $30 million entertainment center. With 35,000 square feet on two public levels and a mezzanine, and room for more than 500 visitors at a time, it is one of the largest tenants signed up for the former power generating station, along with Hard Rock and Barnes & Noble bookstore (scheduled to open later this summer).

To signal its presence within the building, ESPN Zone has attached large signs near the top and a marquee featuring a moving, Times Square-style sports ticker, satellite dishes and a (literally) flaming logo. The most unusual exterior attachment -- one that's relatively subdued compared with Hard Rock's neon guitar -- is a monochromatic "sports kebab" made with bronze-colored balls on a skewer. The kebab is a recurring motif for ESPN Zone, appearing on everything from jewelry sold in the Zone Stuff souvenir shop to matching columns that frame the entrance.

The interiors were designed by Disney's and ESPN's in-house designers, in collaboration with Dallas designer Charles Daboux. Just inside the entrance is a multi-story atrium that leads to two main spaces on the same level -- a dining area called the Studio Grill and a tiered Screening Room, where patrons can watch sports events around the world. On the second level is a 10,000-square-foot Sports Arena, a high-tech arcade.

Many tie-ins While ESPN Zone has some features that will be familiar to patrons of sports bars and theme restaurants, it's the way they're put together that gives this operation its distinctive character. Everything from the graphics to the furnishings has been designed to reinforce connections between the place and the network.

The restaurant is designed as a TV studio and features replicas of sets from three of ESPN's most popular shows: "SportsCenter," " NBA 2Night" and "Baseball Tonight." Patrons may dine at separate tables or sit in the anchor chairs, if they're available. (This is a working studio and will be used from time to time for live broadcasts, while diners watch.) Placemats will be printed daily not only to show dining specials but to update scores and other sports news.

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