UNTIL now, Walt Disney World has not been an especially high-profile ``player'' in American sports. It is perhaps best known for hosting professional golf tournaments on its championship courses. The Disney folks are gearing up to go beyond this, however, based on the news coming out of Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Not long ago, plans were unveiled to build a 100-acre sports complex on Disney's sprawling tract in central Florida. The project is part of what corporate spokesman John Story calls a ``more aggressive stance'' that seeks to cast Walt Disney World as a ``major sports destination'' and make the Disney name synonymous with sports.
The center will include fields and facilities for a myriad of sports and open its doors to high school, college, and youth-league teams, as well as individual professional and leisure-time athletes. Among the anticipated uses: youth sports camps, made-for-TV events like home-run derbies and slam-dunk contests, and even preseason training camps for some professional teams.
Mr. Story laughs when asked if the Jamaican bobsled team, featured in the recent Disney movie ``Cool Runnings,'' might train there, but then agrees that even this sounds plausible. (The Disney corporation, it should be added, purchased a National Hockey League expansion franchise - the Anaheim, Calif., Mighty Ducks - not long after distribution of a movie about youth hockey called ``The Mighty Ducks.'')
Construction of the Florida sports center is expected to begin next year, and if completed in time, Olympic athletes and teams could use the facility in making final preparations for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
A further indication that Disney, which has made ex-Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Reggie Williams its director of sports development, is expanding its sports horizons comes Jan. 16, when it will host the inaugural Walt Disney World Marathon, a significant addition to the Southeast's running calendar.
The marathon will be a self-contained event, run entirely on Disney land, beginning and ending at Epcot Center and passing through Disney-MGM Studios Theme Park and the Magic Kingdom. Because the route is flat, with an elevation change of only 30 feet, the course could produce some very fast times. Given the interesting surroundings and $125,000 purse, the race field - originally set at 6,000 runners - quickly filled and has since been capped at 8,200 entries.
Disney World already has 99 golf holes, but demand is so great that tee times can be difficult to reserve, Story says. Expansion, therefore, is very likely here, too, especially given that 66 percent of Disney's Florida property is still undeveloped, and visitors to the theme parks frequently want to take active vacations.
To accommodate greater numbers of sports-minded patrons, a new 3,800-room complex with a sports motif is being built. Disney's All-Star Resort, slated to open 1,800 units in June, marks Disney's first venture into moderately priced rooms ($69 to $79). At about the same time, Wilderness Lodge, which will approximate a national parks experience, expects to commence operations.
Disney's push into sports might seem threatening to some communities, such as Indianapolis, which has worked hard to establish itself as the nation's ``amateur sports capital.'' Story says that Disney isn't trying to steal anyone's thunder. ``Sports is a multibillion-dollar business worldwide, and we feel there's room for a lot more players.''
Touching other bases
* For the first time in years, a center could wind up as the National Basketball Association's top scorer. Orlando's Shaquille O'Neal and San Antonio's David Robinson are currently running neck-and-neck for scoring honors, with about 28 points a game. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in the 1971-72 season, was the last true center to win the title - unless you count Buffalo's Bob McAdoo, who spent much of his time shooting outside jump shots in capturing the crown in 1974, '75, and '76. One reason the pivotman has had a hard time outscoring other players is the advent of the three-point basket, which is more the bread-and-butter of guards and forwards.
* For Don Shula, the 1993 National Football League season was a sweet-and-sour experience. Sweet, in that he was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year after setting a record for career victories. Sour, because his Miami Dolphins lost their last five games and will miss the NFL playoffs.
* Within the television industry, a lot has been made about Rupert Murdoch's up-and-coming Fox network pulling the turf out from underneath CBS. While Fox's move to pry National Football Conference games away from CBS stamps it as a major new player in TV circles, the coup doesn't mean much to fans, whose loyalties are to teams, not networks, not even one that carried NFL games for 38 years.
* In doing some research on Houston's major-league baseball history, an interesting discovery was made: Mickey Mantle got the first hit and home run in the Astrodome. Normally, of course, Mantle never played in Houston, since his 18-year career was spent with the American League's New York Yankees. But this was an exhibition game played on April 19, 1965, that was used to unveil the so-called ``Eighth Wonder of the World.''