With the opening of CoolToday Park, the Atlanta Braves reclaimed control of their spring-training operations for the first time since 1997—and in the process created a fan experience that raises the bar for Grapefruit League facilities.
Featuring a modern design, CoolToday Park tends to be very vertical from the outside but surprisingly light and airy inside. Part of this design has to do with the quirks of building in Florida, where you’re never too far off the water line, so the only alternative is to build up. Some Florida ballparks, such as the FITTEAM Ballpark of the Palm Beaches, deal with this need to build up with plenty of ramps, sloped berms and gradual approaches to a concourse level. At CoolToday Park, the decision was made to divide the ballpark into separate areas, building up from there and asking patrons to walk up to a raised concourse level.
Once there, the 360-degree concourse provides a lovely view of the surrounding area (Florida is a pretty flat state, so being up a story-plus provides a great perch). An added bonus to the raised and open concourse: It allows in some breezes sorely needed on a hot day. The concourses are wide, allowing for easy access throughout the ballpark. It never felt terribly busy during Sunday’s sellout debut.
It is tempting to compare CoolToday Park with Disney’s Champion Stadium, the former (as of last week) spring home of the Braves. Such a comparison really isn’t fair: at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, the Braves were strictly a tenant, with some limited workout facilities and little say over how the ballpark was run for spring training. There is a Disney way of doing business, and a spring-training game at Champion Stadium was a Disney experience, not a Braves experience. (Then again, we’re guessing many fans liked that experience; check out our story about our last visit to Champion Stadium for spring training.)
With CoolToday Park and the 90-acre training complex, we have a vision of what the Braves bring to the spring-training experience. CoolToday Park borrows a lot from SunTrust Park in terms of operating philosophy, set up like its MLB big brother, with plenty of discrete seating areas with a variety of offerings. There’s the traditional grandstand theater seating, and one of the few places in the park where you’re assured of sitting in a shaded section for the entire game. There are half-moon four tops extending from foul territory into fair, with drinks rails to the back. There is a small berm space in the left-field corner. The Budweiser Bench is located in left-center field, below the scoreboard. A Centauri Super Suite sits at field level, beneath the wraparound concourse. Two Terrace areas on each end of the grandstand’s second level are ticketed separately and feature access to an air-conditioned space and a full-service bar. The corner Left Field Lounge is a multilayer group area with a dedicated menu and waitstaff. Four group areas sit on the concourse, between the dugouts and between the grandstand seating and the concourse. And there are drink rails surrounding the entire seating bowl.
Honestly, if you can’t find a seating arrangement you like based on these options, we’d recommend the easy route: just buy a $10 general admission ticket, arrive early at the ballpark and stake out a spot at a drink rail behind home plate, or grab one of the Adirondack chairs sitting on the concourse.
The other showcase for the complex that fans won’t see: a 62,400-square-foot clubhouse for both the major-and minor-league staffs, as well as the Florida operations staff. This is the sort of facility the Braves never had at Wide World of Sports, but this sort of facility now utilized by virtually every MLB team in Florida and Arizona. The complex also seven diamonds (four for major leaguers, three for minor leaguers), 11 batting cages and 63 pitching mounds.
There’s also one comparison to Champion Stadium worth noting. The Braves’ presence at Champion Stadium had diminished over the years, to the point where there was little in the ballpark to remind fans they were at the spring home of the Braves. (Even the logo-festooned Mickey Mouse in the concourse disappeared.)
That’s certainly not true at CoolToday Park, where there are plenty of reminders you are at an Atlanta Braves spring-training game. Large murals of Braves greats like Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine wrap the exterior towers, while the team’s retired numbers–#44 (Henry Aaron), #3 (Dale Murphy), #6 (Bobby Cox), #10 (Chipper Jones), #21 (Warren Spahn), #29 (John Smoltz), #31 (Maddux), #35 (Phil Niekro) , #41 (Eddie Mathews), #47 (Glavine) and #42 (Jackie Robinson) are memorialized on the front plaza. This, by the way, is the best spot at the ballpark for a selfie spot.
The plaza is still a work in progress. It’s huge, with room to hold its own big events. On Opening Day, a stage was set up for live music, but clearly everyone expects more from this space in the future.
The Braves also run concessions at CoolToday Park. The Tomahawk Tiki Bar (yeah, those are two concepts that really don’t go together) is located down the left-field line; you can belly up to the bar or buy a drink and hang out in the area. In general, you can count on long lines when a facility opens, but there really weren’t many at CoolToday Park.
CoolToday Park is the centerpiece of a larger development in the West Villages that will include a neighborhood shopping center between the ballpark and Tamiami Trail. Being part of a Florida planned development, The Marketplace development will feature the mandatory Publix grocery store as well as a variety of retailers and restaurants and is set to be done in plenty of time for spring training 2020. That will present some interesting issues for Braves fans: traffic was already a snarl for a sold-out Opening Day, and with access to the ballpark limited to four lanes, access probably won’t be better for 2020. Unless a new access plan is implemented, of course.
Still, being so busy that you’re generating a traffic jam isn’t the worst problem to have. CoolToday Park is a strong addition to the Grapefruit League ballpark lineup, and we’re eager to see it in action come 2020.
Capacity: 8,000 (6,200 seats, 1,800 SRO/berm)
Opened: March 24, 2019
Cost: $125 million (Mattamy Homes, $4.7 million plus land and infrastructure; West Villages Improvement District, $37.5 million in bonding repaid by the Braves; state of Florida, $20 million; City of North Port, $4.7 million; Sarasota County, $21.262 million and an annual capital-maintenance payment; and the rest from the Braves, including an annual capital-maintenance payment and overruns)
Dimensions: 335L, 400C, 325R
Architects: Fawley Bryant Architecture (Sarasota), Pendulum Studio (Kansas City)
Construction: Barton Malow, Tandem Construction
Address: 18800 W. Villages Pkwy., Venice, FL 34287.
Directions: West Villages Parkway is located directly off Tamiami Trail (Hwy. 41), a major throughway running between the Everglades, through Fort Myers/Naples and north to Bradenton. From the north (Sarasota), take I-75 south to exit 191 (North River Road) and follow it to West Villages Parkway. From the south (Fort Myers/Naples), take I-75 north to take I-75 south to exit 191 (North River Road), head west on Tamiami Trail, and then to West Villages Parkway.
This article first appeared in the Ballpark Digest newsletter. Are you a subscriber? It’s free, and you’ll see features like this before they appear on the Web. Go here to subscribe to the Ballpark Digest newsletter.