Cubs Celebration

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

It was a cold December day when the mercury barely reached 30 degrees in Chicago, with over three-quarters of an inch of snow. But a hardy group of Chicago Cubs fans didn't care. Of course, they were in Florida at the time.

The second annual Happiest Celebration on Earth Vacation for Cubs Fans took place from December 1-5, with 165 fans of the Major League Baseball team traveling to Walt Disney World for fun in the theme parks, plus a quartet of special events with famous Cubs players from the last few decades.

Ferguson "Fergie" Jenkins (left) and Ernie Banks (center) look on as Billy Williams answers a fan's question at Friday morning's question-and-answer session. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

While the Cubs also run a "fantasy camp," where fans get to train ? and eventually play a baseball game ? with Cubs players, this event is much different. Said event organizer Derek DeBoer, "a fantasy camp has a different vibe, and a different feel, of 'I want to be a baseball player,' and that's not what this event is all about. This event is when we're out on the baseball field tomorrow ? it's just people tossing the ball around. It's just people hitting, taking pictures, enjoying the experience of being on a baseball field with these guys. It's not about 'I could've been a professional baseball player!' No, it's just called people having a good time. That's what this whole event is about, and that's what's great about it."

Some of the attendees were infrequent or first-time visitors to Walt Disney World, while others are frequent guests. Peggy Sabadosa, Jack Winegar and their children Jordan and Jennifer visit the resort a couple of times a year. But this event, said Sabadosa, "was like a bonus, because it was my favorite ? Cubs and Disney."

Billy Williams (left) and Michael Barrett (center) look on as Gary Matthews answers a fan's question. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Participants arrived on Thursday, and the official events began early Friday morning with a private ride on Soarin' before Epcot opened for the day. Afterward, the events continued with a buffet breakfast at the Odyssey Restaurant, the establishment between Test Track and the Mexico pavilion that now is only open for special events.

After breakfast ? and a visit from the Disney characters in baseball garb ? the Cubs players in attendance participated in a question-and-answer panel moderated by Pat Hughes, radio voice of the Cubs, with Cubs TV announcer Len Kasper running a microphone around to those fans who wanted to ask questions. Discussion covered such diverse topics as the Cubs' prospects for the 2006 season, the team's rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals, players' favorite managers, memories of the 1984 Cubs playoff team, favorite games and the difficulty of hitting home runs at Wrigley Field relative to the direction of the wind.

Lee Smith (left) and Bill Buckner (right) look on as Jody Davis (center) answers a question. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

At the conclusion of the session, the players posed for a few photos with the fans on their way to a group of tables at the back of the room. Complimentary baseballs were distributed to the fans, who were then able to line up to have the players sign the balls or anything else that the fans had brought with them. Fans also received complimentary posters for the event.

Ernie Banks signs a photograph for a fan. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The rest of the day Friday was open for participants to have fun in and around the parks and resorts on their own.

On Saturday morning, the group reconvened at Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, where fans were greeted by the Dapper Dans singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" as they arrived at Crackerjack Stadium. Fans were broken into three groups, which rotated between three event areas.

In the bullpen at Crackerjack Stadium, Fergie Jenkins demonstrates the proper grip for throwing a pitch. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

One group went up to the bullpen for a pitching clinic given by Fergie Jenkins and Lee Smith. After seeing a great pitch from a 7-year-old, Jenkins jokingly asked the boy's parents for their address so that he could keep an eye on the boy's development.

Another group got to take some swings in the batting cage under the watchful eye of Billy Williams. After hitting, many chose to grab their gloves and get out in the field to catch the balls hit by the others.

Feeling at home in the bullpen, Lee Smith discusses the art of pitching. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

A third group sat in the stands while Ernie "Mr. Cub" Banks, Gary "Sarge" Matthews and Len Kasper told stories and joked with the crowd. Discussing the mood of the events, DeBoer explained that "the number one thing that people take away is the amount of time that they get to spend with the players and the intimacy of it. And Ernie dancing in the stands right now, as you can see, with the fans."

Ernie Banks regales a group at Crackerjack Stadium with another anecdote. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Most of the rest of the event was free time for participants to enjoy the rest of Walt Disney World, but there were two party events left. First, on Saturday night, there was a private party and Illuminations viewing on the French Island Terrace, featuring desserts and a close-up view of the Illuminations holiday "tag." And to wrap up the weekend on Sunday night, there was an after-hours farewell party in the Chester and Hester's Dino-Rama section of Disney's Animal Kingdom, featuring buffet food, drinks, a DJ, streetmosphere characters, Primeval Whirl, carnival games and animal encounters. Fans and players returned home on Monday.

Gary Matthews, Ernie Banks and Len Kasper (left to right) chat with the fans while in the stands at Crackerjack Stadium. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Packages for the event were sold exclusively through AAA Chicago and promoted on WGN-TV. AAA was chosen to handle the travel arrangements rather than using the Walt Disney Travel Company, said DeBoer, because "AAA was looking for a relationship with the Cubs. AAA is our biggest travel partner that we have here at Disney, and it was just a match made in heaven to bring these three brands together: AAA, Disney and the Cubs. For us, it's tying in with the most beloved team in the country. And for the Cubs to be able to be tied in to Disney is exactly what they were looking for, so they were very happy with this relationship, too."

Gary Matthews acts as photographer for a fan and Ernie Banks. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Event packages started at $949 per person at the All-Star Sports resort, with higher prices for those who elected to stay at the Port Orleans Resort, Beach Club Resort or Animal Kingdom Lodge. While 165 fans attended this year, almost twice last year's attendance, DeBoer thinks that, as the event becomes more popular, it would probably be capped at about 250 people, for fear of losing the intimate feel of the event.

After taking a turn at bat, a fan receives some advice from Billy Williams. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Still the prices may make the event a bit of a reach for some. Sabadosa said that she'd like to do it again, though the cost was a little high; however, she said that it was still worth making the trip down. A fan of the current team, Sabadosa was uncertain how much she'd enjoy the time with the former players. "It's better than I expected," she said. "I was kind of disappointed that there weren't current players, but it's still well-planned, a lot of different activities. The players are very nice, friendly, helpful."

Peggy Sabadosa (right) and her daughter Jennifer Winegar (left) enjoyed themselves at the event. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The players enjoy the event as well. In fact, DeBoer says, the reason that Banks was in attendance was that his friends had enjoyed the event so much last year, they convinced him to join them this year. Players were also able to bring their families, from Michael Barrett's one-year-old son to Billy Williams' grandchildren.

Chicago-based DeBoer, Marketing Manager for Walt Disney World Promotions, also works on other regional initiatives such as the Magnificent Mile Lights Festival, where the holiday lights along Michigan Avenue in Chicago are lit by Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters. He also works year-round on promotions with various radio stations in the Chicago area. He began working on the Cubs event in April. For him, seeing the event unfold was a thrill. ?You work on it all year, and you see it come to fruition, and you see all the Cubs fans walk in, and we have the Dapper Dans in the morning, singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and you see the smiles on the faces. That's what all your hard work is for. And you see it, and it's worth its weight in gold."

While next year's event is still in the planning stages, those interested in participating can call AAA Chicago at 1-866-4AAA-CUBS (1-866-422-2282) for more information as it becomes available.