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If they want to play, they have to pay

Disney fees tax Pop Warner kids

Dorchester's Stanley Harris, 13, raised funds for his Pop Warner team's trip to Florida.
Dorchester's Stanley Harris, 13, raised funds for his Pop Warner team's trip to Florida. (Globe Staff Photo / Josh Reynolds)

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Some of the children stood on inner-city street corners shaking donation cans. Others asked for special offerings at their churches. Or hawked candy bars at shopping malls. Or peddled cookies at schools, synagogues, anywhere a kind soul might spare a dime or a dollar.

Many of these Pop Warner football players and cheerleaders also left it to their parents to join hundreds of other cash-strapped families across the country in ringing up hefty credit-card debts. So began the latest gush of community contributions and family incomes from towns across America into the coffers of the Walt Disney Co., the global giant that last year turned a profit of $3.4 billion.

In order to participate in the Pop Warner national football and cheerleading championships in December, children on teams nationwide were required to stay at Disney hotels and buy tickets to other parks within Walt Disney World. Pop Warner stands all but alone among organizations that impose such requirements on teams competing for national titles at the Disney complex. The vast majority of other child athletes travel there either to participate in invitational events with much less at stake than a national championship, or in competitive tournaments in which they face less restrictive requirements for lodging and amusement passes.

Like more than a million amateur athletes before them, the Pop Warner kids -- ages 8 to 15 -- were bound for Disney's Wide World of Sports Complex, which takes in tens of millions of dollars a year from participants who solicit charitable donations from friends, strangers, businesses, and nonprofits to compete in events at the park.

The conversion of charitable dollars to corporate revenue has proven magical for the dream makers at Disney, whose sports complex represents one of the crown jewels in a global chain of parks and resorts that last year produced nearly $10 billion in revenue.

But for all the joy of their Disney excursions, many youth sports teams have endured overwhelming fund-raising demands to pay for them, often returning home to unsettled bills and still more stumping for charity, much of the time during the school year or holiday season.

"It's sad for the children, but if we get a chance to go there again we won't be able to do it because we can't afford it," said Eddie Fletcher, whose Pop Warner program in Dallas, the St. Philip Saints, faced a $22,000 debt after its $50,000 trip last month to the sports complex.

Fletcher said his program spent $27,000 on Disney lodging alone.

"Disney is making all this money, and they aren't giving anything back," he said.

Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino agreed. Like Pop Warner programs across the country, the Dorchester Eagles had less than a week after they won their regional championship in Providence to raise enough money (more than $40,000) to compete for a national title at Disney World.

"It's crazy they have to raise all that money and have only five days to do it," Menino said before the team held a tense fund-raising meeting at the John Marshall Elementary School in Dorchester four days before the players were scheduled to depart.

"There should be some way to subsidize them," Menino said. "Disney and Pop Warner should be able to help them out."

Disney spokesman Jacob DiPietri said the sports complex gives participants discounted rates and assists struggling teams by providing meal vouchers and offering a variety of payment plans.

"We understand it can be difficult for some teams," DiPietri said. "That's why we do all we can to work with them."

He said Disney is not to blame for requiring the Pop Warner children to stay on Disney property and buy additional theme park passes, which can drive up a team's costs by thousands of dollars. Pop Warner agreed to the requirement in its contract with Disney, which began in 1997 and runs through 2010.

Special accommodations
Pop Warner's executive director, Jon Butler, said the requirement reflects the organization's commitment to the children. He said Pop Warner accepted the terms under an arrangement in which Disney provides first-rate athletic facilities, support services such as medical personnel, and local transportation for all the participants, at no charge.

"They probably could get cheaper hotels, but we are responsible for 9,000 kids participating in the event," Butler said. "That includes making sure they are safe wherever they are staying and making sure they have something positive and healthy to do when they're not participating on the field."

Butler said Pop Warner is not financially structured to provide travel subsidies for its football and cheerleading programs because it charges them registration fees of only $30 and $22, respectively. He described Disney as "a great partner" and said Pop Warner programs receive discounts of at least 20 percent on Disney lodging and theme park passes.

"We've looked at other venues," Butler said, "but it's impossible to find a total package that has such proximity to the athletic facilities, the number of hotel rooms, and a convenient transportation grid."

Disney works with a number of well-known charities, and the Disney complex's largest partner is the Amateur Athletic Union, whose teams subsist mainly on charitable donations, sponsorships, and registration fees. The AAU relocated its national headquarters from Indianapolis to the Disney complex shortly before the facility opened in 1997 and signed a 30-year agreement to hold national championships there.

Since then, the AAU has staged as many as 40 championships a year at the complex and the central office alone has spent more than $1 million annually on Disney events, according to the AAU's federal tax returns. There is no connection between the AAU and Pop Warner.

In all, the Disney complex hosts 180 events a year, many involving tournaments organized by the nonprofit US Specialty Sports Association, many others created by Disney. The corporate-inspired events include Disney's Sun & Surf Baseball Bash, for example, an event in May that requires teams to pay a $400 entry fee and participants to buy packages that include not only a minimum four-night stay at a Disney resort or partner hotel, but at least two-day passes to Disney theme parks.

Critics argued that Disney, while maximizing its profits by restricting many teams to Disney resorts, has ratcheted up the fund-raising pressure on children and families.

"We could have saved a lot of money if we went to one of the other hotels around here," said Daryel Barros, who coached the New Haven Steelers in the Pop Warner Midget playoffs at the Disney complex.

While rooms were available at a nearby Comfort Inn through for $51.43 a night during Pop Warner's championships, Disney's least expensive package for the Pop Warner teams required a three-night stay (four persons per room) at Disney's All-Star Sports Resort and a four-day theme park pass for $319 per person. At that rate, Disney received $1,276 per room, or nearly $425 a night.

"We're going home about $8,000 in debt," said Barros, one of many coaches and parents associated with Pop Warner teams who said they remained in debt after exhausting charitable donations.

No teams struggled more than those from low-income communities.

"It shouldn't have to be that way," Barros said. "With Disney being a billion-dollar company, they could come down on the price a little bit more. After all, this is supposed to be about the kids."

Financial distress
Many other teams would have welcomed some financial flexibility, said Art Davis, president of the Southfield-Lathrup (Mich.) Falcons. His program needed to raise $60,000 to send its Pop Warner football and cheerleading teams to the championships.

"Everybody should have an option on that Disney package," Davis said. "A lot of people don't even go to the theme parks. They don't want to get caught up in the Disney thing. They want to focus on the games."

The Michigan team, among others, has tried to avoid the last-minute financial crunch by raising money year-round.

"Disney isn't giving us anything and Pop Warner isn't giving us anything," Davis said. "That puts a lot of stress on a lot of families right before Christmas."

Other teams have tried to save money by staying off Disney property, only for Disney to block them. The cash-strapped Bridgeport (Conn.) Raiders, for example, received a warning from Disney officials when they tried to reduce their lodging expenses by booking rooms off Disney grounds for the 2005 championships.

"They said, 'If you don't stay on Disney property, you can't play,' " said Alvin O'Neal, chairman of Bridgeport Pop Warner. "We fought it out, but in the end, I had to cancel the other reservations."

He said the Disney package cost the Raiders $12,000, about $5,000 more than the team would have spent under its initial reservation.

In addition, O'Neal said, Disney officials required him to provide daily updates on an ongoing fund-raising campaign in Bridgeport. Disney made a concession by reducing the five-day theme park pass the players and coaches were required to buy to three days. And the Bridgeport team saved money by forgoing the final night of its stay and putting the children on a bus at 1 a.m. for the 24-hour ride home to Connecticut.

O'Neal said he worried about placing additional stress on the children.

"You try not to get them involved," he said. "You don't want them to know the difficulty you're having."

The Dorchester team endured a similar experience in 2005, returning home to a $15,545 bill from Disney. The Eagles had been so short of cash that Disney officials permitted them to go without the theme-park passes but insisted they stay on Disney property. As a consequence, the children spent their time off the football field at the hotel pool or game room while players from other teams ventured to theme parks.

Dorchester's team leaders were determined to provide the children a better experience last month.

"I can't take these kids out of the inner city again and say, 'Here's the pool, that's it,' " team president Leslie Goodwin said. "I've got to show them a good time and let them know the community is behind them."

It wasn't easy. Raising the money required long hours, much anxiety -- and a measure of faith -- for the Dorchester program.

"Before you lay down tonight, get on your knees and pray," Goodwin said at the fund-raising meeting after she announced the team was "broke."

The predicament prompted one concerned mother to ask how much each family might be asked to contribute for the trip (nearly half the parents could not afford the $150 registration fee).

In Manoa, Hawaii, for example, each child's family needed to pay $1,300 to close the fund-raising gap. In East Anchorage, some parents contributed more than $900 each. In Everett, Mass., families contributed about $500 per child.

But Goodwin assured Dorchester's worried parents the team's board of directors would cover any shortfall.

"If we have to go on our own credit cards, we go on our credit cards," she said. "That's how we roll."

Numerous volunteer coaches tap their personal credit cards for the Disney trips, said Joe Panniello, president of the Pop Warner Conference of Eastern Massachusetts, which contributes to the Florida-bound teams.

"Fortunately, we've never had a team that was unable to make it," Panniello said. "But a lot of teams have come close because they actually got into Disney property without having the resources."

Relying on generosity
Dorchester's board of directors quickly eased fund-raising concerns last month by securing a $14,000 loan. Goodwin said they wanted to prevent the desperation that inspired a group of players to skip school the previous year and ride the subway to Downtown Crossing, where they raised $800 with their donation cans before parents learned of their truancy and rushed to the scene.

This time, the Dorchester kids stayed closer to home. They canvassed the Four Corners area, while the adults solicited donors who had helped the team erase the previous year's debt after the Globe published a story on the team's plight.

By the time they boarded the bus home from Florida, however, the Dorchester team had yet to cover its expenses, despite dedicating a $5,000 grant from the New England Patriots and Fidelity Investments to the Disney hotel bill (the Patriots and Fidelity gave $5,000 to each of the eight New England teams among the 64 that competed for national titles).

But the Eagles returned home to an answered prayer, Goodwin said, when they received a $25,000 donation from the State Street Foundation, allowing them to settle their remaining bills.

"We were overwhelmed by the generosity," she said. "It was further evidence that when kids are doing the right thing, there are people who care about helping them achieve their goals."

Nearly 350 cheerleading teams also competed, including 33 from New England, several of which won championships in their divisions. Each cheerleading team participated in a single performance that lasted no longer than four minutes.

Still, Disney's box office bustled. The events enabled Disney to profit not only from the participants but nearly 14,000 spectators, mostly families that turned out to support the children. Many stayed in Disney lodging, bought passes to additional theme parks, and paid either $11.25 a day or $27.75 a week per person to enter the sports complex and view the competition.

Inside the complex, they could dine at the All Star Cafe, where a specialty drink cost $9.25 and a burger with fries went for $9.99, plus tax. Or they could stop at a snack counter for a hot dog basket ($5.79) and bottled water ($2).

Families also could buy photo prints ($18.75), posters ($49.95), or blankets ($124.95) of the football players in action and DVDs of the cheerleading teams ($40). There were Pop Warner T-shirts ($20) and ornaments ($14). And a trove of Disney products.

"Christmas is going to be real slim for us this year," said Roscoe Wyche 3d, who runs a barbecue restaurant in Anchorage and spent $3,000 on the Disney trip for himself, his wife and son, a member of the East Anchorage Eagles.

"It's a big burden to put on the players and the parents," Wyche said. "Of course, we're going to support the players, but when you hit us with a couple of thousand dollars in bills, that's a big lick."

Almost too big, said Stan Brown, president of Alaska South Central Pop Warner Football. He said the Eagles needed to raise $30,000 to compete in the regionals in San Francisco and $28,000 to travel to Orlando (the air fare was less expensive to Florida).

"It's getting to be too much," Brown said. "I want to stop the travel unless we can find a new funding source."

Disney and Pop Warner officials said they offer fund-raising options, including a program in which teams can keep 60 percent of the money they collect selling subscriptions to ESPN The Magazine (Disney owns 80 percent of ESPN).

But Goodwin and several other team leaders said they were unaware of the fund-raising programs, which they speculated might not produce much revenue in low-income communities. The Dorchester team already competes for scarce charitable dollars with other inner-city Pop Warner programs, including the Mattapan Patriots, Mission Hill Buccaneers, and South End Titans.

'They suck you dry'
Fund-raising generally has come easier in communities like suburban Holliston. With town officials hosting a telethon on a local cable channel and residents flocking to a $5-a-head pasta dinner at the VFW Hall, the Holliston team had little trouble collecting nearly $60,000 last month for its first trip to the sports complex.

"We're a small town," Holliston coach Paul Athy said. "But we're a small town with the heart of a lion."

The story was similar in Worcester, where the city rallied to help donate nearly $40,000 for the team's trip to Disney. The only complaint from team leaders, voiced by others across the country, was the price of air fare. The Worcester team, booking through a Disney travel partner, needed to change its preferred travel dates and fly out of T.F. Green International Airport in Warwick, R.I., and return to Bradley International Airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., for the most affordable fares, $470 for each of its 30 participants.

"They suck you dry," team president Jim Moore said. "It makes you wonder, why are we being taken advantage of?"

For many years, Pop Warner arranged for a travel agent to buy blocks of advance tickets at low rates to save teams money. But Butler said the practice is no longer possible because of changes in the airline industry, particularly since Sept. 11, 2001.

So, many teams scramble to make ends meet. In Dallas, the St. Philip Saints, like the Dorchester Eagles, saved money by chartering a bus to Florida. Yet Coach Fletcher said he still carries a $8,000 debt on his personal credit card.

In addition, each of the Dallas children's families was asked to contribute $400.

"Some of the parents said, 'My children won't get anything for Christmas. This is their Christmas present,' " Fletcher said.

He said another mother told him, "This is my bill money. I won't be able to pay the bills next month."

In fact, the Disney experience proved so distressing, Fletcher said, that team leaders are considering withdrawing from Pop Warner and joining another football organization.

"We're second-guessing ourselves," he said. "We're saying, 'Maybe we shouldn't have made the trip.' "

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