With market surveys in 1959 suggesting that only five percent of visitors to his popular theme park in Anaheim, California came from east of the Mississippi River – where 75 percent of the United States population resided – American visionary Walt Disney sought land in the eastern half of the country for a project to supplement Disney Land. A dozen years later, on Oct. 1, 1971, Disney World opened in Central Florida with only the Magical Kingdom theme park.
Exactly one month later, in November of 1971, the Executive Board of a struggling three-year-old softball organization – the United States Slo-Pitch Softball Association – met in Petersburg, Virginia to discuss their future. Closing the doors was only one of the grim options. But the decision was made to forge ahead, and the Executive Board elected Al Ramsey, a 40-year-old Petersburg native, as National President. The constitution was completely overhauled and Ramsey instructed the Board to pledge itself to operating on a sound business basis and launch an all-out campaign to find ambitious and qualified new directors. The USSSA National Headquarters was immediately moved from Wisconsin to Petersburg, and the Association was incorporated as a non-profit organization in Virginia.
Over the course of the next 40 years, the two organizations – the Walt Disney World Resort (known informally as Disney World) and USSSA (which would eventually undergo a name change of sorts) – grew and flourished, before their paths finally and inevitably crossed early in the 21st Century. In the decade since the relationship commenced under dire circum¬stances – through no fault of their own – it has blossomed into nothing short of Magic!
While Disney World was busy adding such popular attrac¬tions as the Epcot theme park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach over the years, USSSA experienced tremendous success of its own. Following years of consistent growth, USSSA purchased a 24,000-square foot building in Petersburg in 1981 for its National Headquarters and Hall of Fame Museum. The mete¬oric rise of USSSA’s slow-pitch program eventually leveled off and the Board of Directors began to consider other possibili¬ties of remaining at the forefront of sports organizations.
At the 1997 National Meeting in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, USSSA officially changed its name to the United States Specialty Sports Association, becoming the first multi-sports governing body to oversee slow- and fast-pitch softball, base¬ball, basketball and golf. Ironically, perhaps inevitably, that exact same year – in March of 1997 – Disney World opened Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex, a $100 million project built on 220 acres of former wetlands near Interstate 4. The anchor of the nine-venue complex, which was re-branded as the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex on Feb. 25, 2010 – is Champion Stadium that is the Spring Training home of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves.
Soon after the joy of becoming a multi-sport association was realized in 1997, the USSSA family suffered a tragic loss with the passing of Al Ramsey, who had since become the Associations’ Executive and CEO. The Board of Directors imme¬diately named Assistant Executive Director, Don DeDonatis as the new Executive Director and CEO. DeDonatis would soon prove to be an American visionary in his own right by leading the Association to unimagined heights.
“Disney’s Wide World of Sports is one of the finest sports facili¬ties in the world,” said DeDonatis. “We needed to be part of that. It took a few years to get the kinks worked out, but we really wanted it to happen.”
In early 2000, DeDonatis began talks with Disney’s Wide World of Sports to bring several of USSSA’s marquee World Tournaments to the Central Florida area. The “Showcase of Softball” – the USSSA Men’s Major World Series – as well as the Men’s Class C World Tournament were the first to come. Negotiations went well and both Disney and USSSA committed to putting on the best show possible for the 2001 season. In all, there were 124 teams entered in the 2001 Men’s C World Tournament and 16 Team in the Men’s Major World Series, both of which were held at Disney.
Then, a tragedy of epic proportions threatened to derail the relationship before it ever began.
Tuesday, September 11, 2001, is a day etched into the memory of each and every American. Few people can forget the day that so changed the landscape of the United States of America. The days leading up to that fateful Tuesday morning were non-eventful. In Petersburg, Virginia preparations were being made to release the bracket for both tournaments to the public and then it was off to Disney for the tournament. News of the attack on the World Trade Center created chaos all around the country that morning and the days ahead.
As the events unfolded, it became apparent that there would be no other option other than to cancel the USSSA events for the coming weekend as air travel all across the nation was suspended indefinitely. Disney, in fact, was considering suspending their entire operations as well, not knowing if the park itself could fall victim to a terrorist attack. After careful consideration, taking into account the gravity of the situation, both the USSSA and Disney agreed to move forward with the tournaments, realizing full well, that the circumstances would prohibit many teams from attending.
“The decision to play wasn’t as difficult as you may think,” said DeDonatis. “We began fielding calls immediately from teams across the country stating their desire to play. The teams themselves told us that they were not going to let an attack on America stop them from moving about their everyday lives and traveling freely. They wanted to play. We consulted with Disney and they agreed. We’d play the event for those teams that wanted to participate.”
That, it seems, is where the magic began.
“Out of the original 124 teams that entered the Men’s C World Tournament, 116 from across the country showed up and played that weekend,” remarked DeDonatis. “From California to Massachusetts, from Michigan to Miami and everywhere in between, they came to play softball. In the Men’s Major, all 16 teams entered came to play. It was an amazing weekend to say the least.”
It became clear on that weekend that USSSA and Disney were a winning combination. Soon afterward talks ensued and rumors surfaced that USSSA was considering relocating from their National Headquarters in Petersburg to Osceola County in Central Florida. The possibility of relocation was due in large part to the relationship that DeDonatis was forging with Disney. In the fall of 2002, DeDonatis announced the reloca¬tion of USSSA National Headquarters and Sports Hall of Fame Museum to Osceola County, Florida as a part of a 15-year working agreement. Coinciding with that announcement was the equally important fact that USSSA and Disney had agreed to a 10-year partnership. USSSA packed moving vans with 375 pallets of Hall of Fame items and put them in storage until the Museum was ready.
Florida Governor Jeb Bush phoned DeDonatis thanking him and welcoming USSSA to Florida and declaring the move as, “another job and economic victory for the State and Osceola County.”
In June of 2005, USSSA moved into a brand new 18,000-square foot facility in Osceola County’s Heritage Park. The facility provides 6,500 square feet of office area on the second floor, with a 5,000 square-foot National Hall of Fame and Sports Museum on the first floor. The Museum houses over 44 years of memorabilia and artifacts relating to USSSA’s proud history and the game of softball and other sports. The remaining 6,500 square feet provides terrace box seating overlooking the first base line of Osceola County Stadium, which is the Spring Training home of the Houston Astros. The MLB team has an identical building overlooking the third base line.
“As far as I’m concerned, making the move to Disney has taken this Association to the next level,” said DeDonatis. “Given our family-oriented events and Disney’s family atmosphere, we’re a perfect fit. At the opening ceremonies of our youth events, you’re on a Disney property, you’ve got Olympic champion ballplayers there, then Mickey Mouse comes walking in. What more can you give a 12-year-old girl?”
USSSA sold over one million dollars worth of Disney theme park tickets in 2011, and has booked over 500,000 hotel room nights in Osceola County over the past decade.
“We’re proud of what we’ve accomplished over the past 10 years,” said DeDonatis. “It’s been a great partnership, and we’re looking to extend this thing. The whole Florida experi¬ence is what separates us from our competitors. With Universal Studios, Sea World and all the Disney theme parks, there is just so much more our customers can do besides play in a tourna¬ment. Many of them will either come a few days early or stay a few days late and make a vacation of this trip.”
With over 57 million visitors every year, Central Florida is one of the most visited destinations in the world. Competition for those visitors keeps the cost of flights down year-round, making the trip affordable for USSSA customers in the process.
Over the past decade, the ESPN Wide World of Sports and USSSA have hosted some of the nation’s premiere athletic events. USSSA World Tournaments in the Men’s, Women’s, Mixed and Armed Forces programs, as well as fast-pitch soft¬ball and youth baseball are routinely held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. In addition to those programs, USSSA has ventured into such sports as basketball, golf, flag football, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, karate, wrestling, and taekwodo. The Association-owned USSSA Pride team of the National Pro Fast-pitch women’s softball league plays more of their home games at Disney than in their hometown of Kissimmee.
“We bring thousands and thousands of teams to Disney every year,” said DeDonatis. “At the beginning of the relation¬ship, we got one weekend in July, one in August and two in September. This year, we’re up to three in July, one in August, three in September, and one each in October, November and December. It has really grown, and Disney is looking at doing even more with us in the future.”
But is hasn’t always been smooth sailing. A wide variety of obstacles have been thrown their way, but USSSA always seems to persevere.
“We’ve seen hurricanes, 9/11, five-dollar gasoline, you name it,” said DeDonatis. “We have fought everything off when most businesses have struggled, and some even gone under. USSSA is thriving. Membership is up every year and the future looks extremely bright.”
Over the years, USSSA and Disney have proven to be excep¬tional partners. As USSSA continues to expand its member¬ship, the lure of warm weather and attractions will continue to play a significant role in bringing teams to Central Florida. The grandest attraction of the all still remains – “The House a Mouse Built” and the finest sports facilities in the nation.
DeDonatis’ vision for the future is for USSSA to have a state-of-the-art complex near its National Headquarters in Osceola County.
“My personal dream is to have our own facility, so we can do things 365 days a year,” said DeDonatis. “We would diversify even more and not have to wait on date allocations. We would have our own facility to hang our hat on. And we wouldn’t cut back at all on what we’re doing now with Disney. It would probably give us the opportunity to grow and bring in even more people and do more things.”
Forty years after each was born and 10 years into a mutually-beneficial relationship, USSSA and Disney are marching strong, hand-in-hand.
By: Greg Huchingson
PHOTO: Courtesy of Walt Disney World
The United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), headquartered in Osceola County, Florida, USSSA is the World’s Largest Multi-sport Athletic Organization. Founded in 1968, USSSA has grown to over 3.7 million participants, competing in 13 nationally sanctioned sports including Baseball, Fastpitch, Slow Pitch, Karate, Basketball, Soccer and more! For more information on USSSA and to register your team visit USSSA.com. Also be sure to visit USSSAToday.com for the latest USSSA News!