“The Disney Way”: How Minor League Baseball Uses Fun and Community to Maximize Fan Experience

Modern Woodmen Park
Modern Woodmen Park in Davenport, Iowa is not only a venue for the Quad Cities River Bandits. It includes a miniature theme park with eight rides, including a 105-foot Ferris wheel. (Ashton Pollard/MEDILL)

By Ashton Pollard
Medill Reports

Fireworks. Sugar. A Ferris wheel. An escape from reality.

Sounds like a day at a theme park. It’s also a day at a Minor League Baseball park, an experience that has finally returned after a canceled 2020 season.

Unlike Major League Baseball, minor league ballclubs do not have control over the personnel on the field. Their job is instead focused on entertainment and customer service, and clubs mimic a well-known corporation when doing so.

“The Disney way is a really great, classic business model to follow,” said Sam Bernabe, president and general manager of the Iowa Cubs, Chicago’s Triple-A affiliate. “They’ll tell you they don’t care how many people are walking into the park, they just want to make sure that everybody there is not finding the gum wrapper laying in the corner of the sidewalk or there’s nothing blowing around. Everything’s perfect.”

The Walt Disney Company, which operates six resorts and 12 theme parks across the world, is known for safety, cleanliness and going above and beyond when it comes to customer service.

In addition to not selling gum in the parks, cast members clean the sidewalks every night. Disney has a utilidor system used for moving trash around underground so it doesn’t ruin the park-goer’s experience. And they have a patent on the safety system employed in the “Dinosaur” ride at Animal Kingdom.

“Everything we do, we do with the guest and cast experience in mind,” said Faron Kelley, vice president of Disney Sports. “Whether that be incorporating new technologies, expanding entertainment and themed offerings, or improving current services, our goal is to create a more enjoyable and welcoming experience for everyone who visits.”

A near-perfect appearance is what Bernabe says he and his team strive for at Principal Park.

“We don’t have anything to do with player development,” Bernabe said. “We don’t have anything to do with where the players are at or what they do. But it’s our job to make sure that the grass is green, and the locker rooms are clean.”

“The fields, the players in the game are still important when it comes to the way we entertain, but it all comes back to making sure that your park is safe and fun,” said Randy Wehofer, vice president and assistant general manager of the team.

The Iowa Cubs have fireworks every Friday night, have dog nights and sometimes allow kids to play t-ball in the outfield.

Dave Heller, the CEO of Main Street Baseball and majority owner and managing partner of three minor league teams including the Quad Cities River Bandits, values safety, cleanliness and also has fireworks every Friday night, but claims to take the Disney model up a notch and was heavily influenced by the corporation.

Located in Davenport, Iowa, Modern Woodmen Park, the High-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, is home to both the River Bandits and eight rides that make up a mini-amusement park, including a 105-foot-tall Ferris wheel sometimes used for speed-dating, a video game room and the only double-decker carousel between Chicago’s Navy Pier and Kansas City.

“I had this idea, this vision of creating a park within a park, and that was the inspiration for a giant Ferris wheel,” Heller said.

Heller’s vision, he said, was directly inspired by Disney.

“How can we take the core Disney philosophy and mold that into something that fits with who we are?”

Heller was so impressed with Disney that he traveled to Orlando and hired someone that was working for the company at the time to assist with the creation of the River Bandits’ stadium.

“I wanted not just to have rides, but I wanted to bring the whole Disney culture,” Heller said.

The rides are not the only excitement not related directly to baseball. Heller has had an event called the “candy drop” where a helicopter rains candy down on the children. As they pick up their treats, the helicopter circles back, dropping marshmallows on its final lap.

The parallels to Disney are obvious. A theme park, candy everywhere and a place that allows anyone who walks through its doors the opportunity to forget what is happening in their lives.

“Young people can come here and no matter what else is going on in their lives, they can have two or three hours of just uninterrupted fun,” Heller said. “That’s my vision.”

The Cedar Rapids Kernels provide an escape for fans as well, one which is very welcomed given the year the town has had.

In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic which impacted the entire country, a derecho storm moved through the city in August 2020 causing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to Cedar Rapids, including $1.3 million to Veterans Memorial Stadium, home of the Kernels, the Minnesota Twins High-A affiliate.

The damage in Cedar Rapids is still widespread as only 11% of the city’s zones have been completely cleaned up, according to the city’s website.

Like Disney, Kernels games provide that escape from reality.

“People understand that it’s not just about the baseball out there,” said Bob Teig, a Cedar Rapids resident whose son Jon has been the Kernels bat boy since 2001. “It’s a great outdoor facility, a place for interaction. The baseball is a plus.”

At the highest levels of minor league baseball, the Disney way is always something being considered.

“I think everybody’s well aware that Disney sets the standard,” said Jeff Lantz, the senior director of communications for MiLB. “They’re kind of the entertainment organization that everyone tries to emulate when it comes to customer service. I mean they have a full program dedicated to it, so that tells you how much they care about it.”

Each of these teams – the perfect-facility-focused Cubs, the River Bandits’ theme park and the Cedar Rapids escape from reality that provides a gathering place for old friends – may have slightly different approaches to keep fans walking through their gates each spring and summer, but one theme remains constant.

What seems to matter most at the end of the day is the community and the camaraderie.

“I’ve seen people 100 years old come off that Ferris wheel, and I’ve seen babies three months old come off that Ferris wheel, and every age in between,” Heller said. “And the one thing they all have in common? They’re all smiling. They all have a great time. And boy, that means the world.”

Ashton Pollard is a sports reporter at Medill. You can follow her on Twitter at @ashtonpollard7.