My son’s first word was “ball.” At that moment, I knew I better gear up for a life of sports. That was 1998. Since then, my family has taken plenty of Florida vacations to witness spring training.
Of course, my family is not alone in its passion for baseball. This spring, nearly 2 million fans will attend close to 300 spring training games in 15 cities. Florida is clearly no rookie when it comes to spring training. With winter winding down and basketball season heading to a close, we changed the clocks and bought our new cleats. The incessant pleas to “Take me out to the ballgame” have begun. And in our house, that means a Florida vacation, where baseball fans and major leaguers gather to warm up — both figuratively and literally.
Our family has spent many springs watching Florida’s Grapefruit League play in Tampa. It’s a great family vacation – especially with multiple generations. My father, my husband and my two sons hate to miss a game. With 16 out of 30 Major League teams making Florida home for their training programs, the deep-rooted tradition continues this year. Some hotels have jumped into the game, offering attractive packages and souvenirs. For instance, the Intercontinental Tampa is within walking distance to several popular shopping and dining destinations, and convenient to George Steinbrenner (Legends) Field. Visitors can take home a “Fan Tool Kit,” complete with a team-specific chocolate amenity, baseball for signing, Cracker Jacks, peanuts, popcorn, Bazooka gum, soda, and famous song lyrics.
Cheap tickets, easy autographs
Tampa has the home-field advantage, being conveniently located to all the fan-favorite teams. Guests can catch the Astros, Braves, Cardinals, Dodgers, Marlins, Mets, Nationals, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, Blue Jays, Tampa Bay Rays, Indians, Orioles, Red Sox, Tigers, Twins and Yankees, who play just a few miles from the hotel on Legends Field. The Tampa Bay Rays train just a few hours south in Port Charlotte at Charlotte Sports Park, which was recently renovated to host the team this year. It's possible to plan a family vacation that combines Orlando’s theme parks with ball park stops along the West Coast to make everyone happy. (I imagine if I had some “Cinderellas” at home that we’d be visiting the Magic Castle along with Walt Disney World’s Wide World of Sports Complex to catch an Atlanta Braves game at Cracker Jack, now Champion® Stadium.)
In addition to the weather, there are other reasons for a Florida vacation during training season. Not only are the spring training ticket prices often cheaper (many general attendance or lawn seats are $10 or less), but players are more accessible to sign autographs and say “Cheese!” for the cameras. If an autograph is your goal, take the kids to Orlando area’s Osceola County Stadium in Kissimmee, where the team set up fan heaven, known as “Autograph Alley.” The spring home of the Houston Astros, this is the smallest ballpark in the Grapefruit League, making it really kid-friendly. It even features a playground for the youngest spectators when they don't feel like sitting still anymore.
You don’t have to look far for more action. Stops throughout the state include historic ballparks such as Holman Field at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, where the Los Angeles Dodgers train, to Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, where the St. Louis Cardinals and Florida Marlins play. The Detroit Tigers train in Lakeland, located one hour southwest of Orlando. With 72 years of training history now under its belt, “Tiger Town,” will receive the honor this year of having the longest-standing relationship between a Major League team and its training city. Bright House Field in Clearwater is the place to be to watch a Phillies game or head over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to Sarasota and watch the Cincinnati Reds play at Ed Smith Stadium.
Joe DiMaggio once said of Opening Day, "You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen." And maybe, if you are lucky enough this April 6, it will.
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Jennifer Michaels is the National Family Travel Examiner for Examiner.com. In addition to her freelance work for Orbitz.com and Away.com, she currently runs her own Web site, FamilyTravelPlanet.com, where she aims to take the hassles out of travel with kids.