Prime Time Players

By staff January 1, 2003

The secret is out-Florida isn't just about the beaches anymore.

Although the state built its reputation as a haven for snowbirds and retirees with its white sand and calm surf, that isn't quite enough these days. Residents want more to do, and tourists need more reasons to choose Florida over equally exotic destinations.

Sports are filling the void.

Florida is fast becoming a top choice for both professional and amateur events. Counties are scrambling to attract any event that puts "heads in beds," in the parlance of tourism mavens. In fact, Sarasota recently formed a sports commission charged with doing just that. But the big prizes, the big name games, races and tournaments, are the biggest draws. And Florida now hosts some of the biggest sports draws in the country. In addition to featuring many of the top athletes in the world, these events are usually staged in interesting cities that offer excitement and entertainment away from the stadium as well. So if you are looking to venture from our sometimes quiet burg this season to hear the roar of the engines, the thwack of the club or the crack of the bat, all in top-tier surroundings, look no further. Mark your calendars for the five best events to visit this year.

Happy New Year at the Orange Bowl

You need to hurry for this one.

By publication of this issue, the teams will be set and the parties will be underway for this year's Orange Bowl-still one of the big four college bowl games. Played Jan. 2, the game will feature two of the top eight teams in college football this season. (Officially it's called the FedEx Orange Bowl, but we won't be particularly careful about names. After all, this game is called the Orange Bowl but no longer is played in the Orange Bowl in downtown Miami, but rather in Pro Player Stadium. What's in a name?)

College football has become a season-long single elimination tournament, with the top teams vying for the national championship. For those that don't get there, the top bowl games are the season's big prizes, filled with all the school pride and enthusiasm football is famous for. Big boosters mingle with current students. Alumni reacquaint themselves with fight songs and mascots. School colors show themselves proudly at the nightclubs and pool bars in South Beach.

But in addition to all the amateur fun, bowl games are big business, and this one is no exception. The calendar for the 2004 Orange Bowl starts in April, with the Thurgood Marshall Scholarship Fund benefit in Fort Lauderdale. The $850 per table show features music and comedy at the Broward County Convention Center. June features a Summer Splash cruise, with a four-night tour of the Caribbean on the Enchantment of the Seas. Game-related events finally kick off on New Year's Eve, with a coaches' luncheon on Biscayne Bay featuring former players and Orange Bowl Hall of Honor members.

Want more parties? The Beach Bash on New Year's Day is an all-day event with national entertainers; then, a seven-hour tailgate party leads up to kickoff on Jan. 2.

And while the Rose Bowl may be called the granddaddy of them all, the Orange Bowl is the granddaddy of half-time shows. The first game to forego marching bands for klieg lights, singers and dancers, the Orange Bowl has conducted a yearlong talent search for this year's intermission entertainment.

The best bet for tickets to this year's game is probably a ticket broker, but it's not too early to start planning for 2004. Heck, game organizers already are looking forward to 2005, when the Orange Bowl is set to host the national championship game. Go to to guarantee your tickets early.

The Daytona 500-February's Great American Race

The biggest event in the country's fastest-growing sport is about three hours away, in Daytona Beach-land of spring break and NASCAR.

Bring your earplugs to Daytona this February, because the roar is nearly deafening. As the green flag sets to drop for the Daytona 500, the ground literally rumbles beneath your feet under the weight of all that horsepower. With the cars pushing 200 miles per hour, they flash by in a whirl of color. And more often than not at Daytona-one of the country's "super speedways"-they pile up in a tumult of twisted metal and rubber in a chain reaction wreck.

The atmosphere at Daytona these days is more like the Kentucky Derby, with Budweiser instead of mint juleps, than like a demolition derby at DeSoto Speedway.

If you haven't been paying close attention, you may not have noticed that stock car racing has come a long way from roaring down the beach in Daytona or along the dirt tracks of North Carolina. How about this: watching the cars speed around the track from a padded Winston Tower seat with in-seat food and beverage service, or dining in luxury at the Daytona Club Hospitality Pavilion? "The Daytona Club is packed with great amenities: delicious catering, lively musical acts and the best service available. We make it a world all its own," says director of sales and sponsor services Rick Goupil. To enter the rarified luxury of the club, you'll pay more than $2,000.

The Daytona festivities actually start Feb. 1, leading to the big race on Feb. 16, with several smaller races and qualifying runs. The Daytona 500 is considered the Super Bowl of racing; and, oddly, it is the first race on the calendar.

While other sports are losing fans, a trend largely blamed on rich players with big egos and millionaire owners who disdain the spectators, the North American Stock Car Racing Association is thriving. The drivers get the credit for maintaining their down-home demeanor in the rich business of racing. You can actually get a driver's autograph and shake his hand without getting a sneer along with it.

And at Daytona, it's not just watching cars make left turns. Daytona USA is a hands-on attraction that lets fans play race announcer, design a car, and ride a race car simulator that feels like it's going 200 miles per hour.

One piece of advice for when the race ends: Stay in town an extra day, because the other choice is to stay in your car on Interstate 4 overnight. The beach is better.

For race ticket information call (386) 253-RACE. For accommodations, call the Daytona Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau at (386) 255-0415.

Spring Training at Dodgertown

Drive across the state during spring training season, and you'll know you're close to Vero Beach when the strong scent of orange blossoms wafts through the car. Just off the main highway sits Dodgertown-a theme park name in one of the few parts of Florida without one.

Dodgertown was an abandoned naval air station when baseball owner Branch Rickey came upon it in 1948. It included two spartan barracks that he figured were good enough for his boys if they were good enough for America's soldiers. He built batting cages, sliding pits, base paths, a pool, tennis courts and ball fields. Then he shipped in 600 players and changed the way the game was taught at the highest levels, bringing minor league and major league players together for one training camp. Today, Dodgertown sports a stadium that holds more than 8,000 people, two 18-hole golf courses, a conference center and team offices. The sprawling modern complex still epitomizes the sights, sounds, scents and feelings of old-time baseball, and it's still the best spring training experience in the game.

The streets bear the names of Dodger greats-for example, Roy Campanella Avenue and Sandy Koufax Lane. Although fences have gone up, and there is more segregation from the players than in less security-conscious times, fans get their best chance to mingle with the stars at Dodgertown. Holman Stadium, where the games are played, is a good block from the practice fields. Former manager Tommy Lasorda used to drive his golf cart across the bridge to Holman; but the players have always walked among their fans, signing autographs and chatting about things back home or nodding when someone mentions a cousin who played pee wee football with the third baseman's brother.

Committed baseball fans can spend a weekend at the complex enjoying the cool air and admiring well-placed bunts. Everyone else- which is almost everybody-can take the opportunity to relax in a relatively unspoiled part of Florida self-described as "homey, yet casually elegant." Considered by many one of the best small resort areas in Florida, Vero boasts some of the most scenic and pristine beaches in the state.

But you don't have to rough it. Try The Vero Beach Hotel & Club for oceanfront suites, tropical gardens and poolside dining. And if you just have to shop, Palm Beach is a relatively short jaunt down I-95.

Top Tennis at the Nasdaq-100 Open

In its second year under this title, the Nasdaq combines top quality tennis with the glitz, glamour and celebrity watching of Miami Beach to make it one of professional tennis' most prestigious events.

With nearly $7 million in prize money, the 19-year-old event is the fifth-largest tennis tournament in the world, after the four majors. In 2002, nearly 300,000 people watched the two-week event, which combines men and women players at The Tennis Center at Crandon Park. This year's tournament will run from March 19 to March 30, with Andre Agassi and Serena Williams expected to defend their titles. The Nasdaq annually draws nearly all the top players on both the men's and women's tours.

"We have always prided ourselves as being a destination for people who want the most out of their entertainment dollar, whether it's great tennis, great food, or just a chance to relax in the upscale, low-key atmosphere we offer," says Nasdaq-100 Open founder and chairman Butch Buchholz.

Indeed, the Nasdaq is about much more than tennis. Coconut Grove, South Beach, Coral Gables, Key Biscayne, downtown Miami. Need more? Check out the vacation packages offered through the tournament:

- The Bronze plan houses you at the Marriott on Biscayne Bay and includes tickets to the opening weekend or the finals. Priced at $1,695.

- The Silver plan puts you at the Inter-Continental Hotel in downtown Miami and includes seats for the event in the 300 level (read: not the cheap seats.) It is priced at $4,095, if you want to attend the finals.

- The Gold plan includes three nights at the Ritz-Carlton Key Biscayne, box seats to the tournament and meals in the exclusive on-site box holder club. Priced at $3,895, excluding the finals.

Past champions include Venus Williams, Martina Navratilova, Monica Seles and Pete Sampras, who said the tournament has a "Grand Slam atmosphere." With prize money rising and the big names all there, that doesn't figure to change.

Call 1-800-725-5472 for travel package and ticket details.

The Players Championship at Sawgrass

In golf as well as tennis, Florida is right on the verge of breaking into the majors. Just as the Nasdaq-100 is only half a notch short of a Grand Slam event, The Players Championship at the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is considered the "fifth major" in professional golf. The defending champion-Craig Perks-doesn't have a household name, but past champions most certainly do: Woods, Duval, Couples, Norman, Kite, Floyd, Trevino and Nicklaus, to name just a few. This year's event will run concurrent with part of the Nasdaq-100, from March 24 to March 30, so fans of both will have to choose.

Played on the TPC Stadium Course in Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville and St. Augustine, the tournament is open to current defending champions of PGA events, the top 125 money winners, winners of the four majors and a select few other champions. The limited field and big names are a big reason the event drew 45,000 spectators per day last year.

TPC courses are designed for the spectators. Like the Prestancia course in Sarasota, Sawgrass has natural vantage points around the greens and tees, carved out of the ground like amphitheaters. You can park yourself on your favorite hole and see the entire field, or you can put on your hiking shoes and follow your favorite player. A popular spot is the island green at number 17. The more sadistic patrons camp out there, reveling in the misery of the world's best players as they dump shot after shot into the lake.

Of course, attending a golf tournament can be an all-day event. So those who prefer to see just a few players, or spend as much time partying in the corporate tents as whispering around the greens, might want to make this a dual purpose trip by staying in St. Augustine.

Home to some of the best bed & breakfast inns in the country, St. Augustine is a historical journey every Floridian-or even part-timer-should experience.

Founded in 1565, 42 years before the English colonized Jamestown and 55 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, St. Augustine continues as the oldest, continuously occupied European settlement in the continental U.S. Thanks to railroad mogul and developer Henry Flagler, St. Augustine and many of its centuries-old buildings are preserved today.

Dozens of old homes have been preserved or restored as inns. Ranging in variety from Victorian to Mediterranean, these quaint places offer luxury lodging and superior service. A sampling of inns that might have room, if you call early, during this year's Players Championship: Agustin Inn, (904) 823-9559, located in the walking district; Casa de la Paz, (904) 829-2915, built in 1915 overlooking Matanzas Bay; Peace & Plenty Inn, (904) 829-8209, which serves afternoon High Tea and gourmet breakfast in a Victorian setting.

For tournament tickets call (904) 273-3382.

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