The sun's not up at 5:30 a.m., but golf-ers are. On a brisk Orlando morning early last December, incentive travel suppliers and clients boarded buses in the morning twilight at Disney's Boardwalk Resort, heading off for the first full day of the Tenth Annual Incentive Travel Golf Spectacular.

On the short drive to Walt Disney World's Bonnet Creek Golf Club, the talk is of soaring drives, impossible putts, and other heroics of the golf course, but the undercurrent is business, the incentive travel business, which is the one thing-besides a love of the fairways-that ties all the attendees together.

This annual invitational-a first for the incentive market when it began a decade ago-has enthusiastic sponsorship from incentive travel suppliers, including Walt Disney World (in a major way), a number of non-Disney properties (from as far away as Hawaii), hotel chains, airlines, convention bureaus, destination management companies, beverage companies, Adams/Laux Publishing (which puts out this magazine among other meetings industry publications), and other companies eager to do business with the incentive market. Each sponsor may invite a guest (typically an incentive house executive), and each incentive house executive is welcome to bring a client or someone else from the company.

This attractive supplier-to-buyer ratio, Disney's ability to draw, and a tradition of friendly competition are among the keys to the Incentive Spectacular's success, says Les Pedersen, who served as co-chair for the 1996 tournament with Kevin Harry. Both are senior sales managers at Walt Disney World Resorts. The tournament has grown from about 50 attendees at its outset in 1987 to nearly 250 last December. Pedersen says the size of the group won't continue to grow, but the enthusiasm will, as Disney showcases new resorts and venues, and networking opportunities remain strong.

"We're very fortunate to be one of the suppliers," says Jim Lauster, sales executive for the Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Bureau, which has sponsored the Incentive Spectacular for seven years. "I've built some of the strongest relationships I have in this industry at this tournament."

"I look forward to it," says Wayne Heus, regional vice president for Business Incentives in Indianapolis, IN, who has been to five out of the last six Spectaculars. "It's an opportunity for us to see what's new at Disney. This year we brought a medical diagnostics company that often meets in Florida."

Boom, They're Off After the sun peeked over the pines and palms, 36 foursomes headed off for a shotgun start on Disney's Osprey Ridge and Eagle Pines golf courses, but not before some fanfare far louder than a shotgun. With Mickey Mouse on hand to take in the show, fireworks exploded over the Bonnet Creek Clubhouse. Then, a few minutes later, two SF260 Marchetti fighter trainers buzzed the group at a screaming 270 miles per hour, courtesy of Fighter Pilots USA. With the send-off complete, 72 balloon-adorned golf carts headed toward the fairways for the scramble event.

While Bonnet Creek is always the tournament site, over the years, Disney has used the Spectacular to showcase its newest hotels, resorts, and attractions. When the tournament began, Disney's Contemporary Resort was the headquarters choice. In 1992, attendees were introduced to Disney's Grand Floridian and in 1993 to Disney's Yacht & Beach Club. This year the site was the new Disney's Boardwalk Inn, which opened in 1996, themed as a grand 1930s seaside resort.

The 1997 Incentive Spectacular's headquarters hotel has not yet been finalized, but plans for 1998 are in the works: Disney is pro-posing a land/sea event, says Ped-ersen. After 18 holes in Orlando, the group will travel to the coast to board the new Disney cruise ship and steam overnight to the Bahamas to finish the tournament in the islands. (Disney will enter the cruise market with the launch of Disney Magic in early 1998.)

Spectacular Events In addition to its resorts, Disney shows off its special-event venues and new theme parties to this group of influential buyers. "In 1994, the Magic Kingdom had just opened to group events," Pedersen explains, "so we used Frontierland for an evening function. In 1995, Lion King was the hot new theme party." The event BI's Heus remembers is a sports theme party several years ago at the Dolphin. "Midway through the evening," he says, "they rolled the wall back to reveal a boxing ring. They had had Golden Glove boxers flown in for the event. It was fantastic."

This year, Disney's recently opened Fantasia Garden's Miniature Golf Course was a natural choice for the opening night party. The second evening was themed around Harleys and cigars at the Buena Vista Palace, and on the final night, incentive buyers were introduced to the "Dino-Round" at EPCOT's renovated Universe of Energy Pavilion. The new party, a caveman theme with giant dinosaurs as the backdrop, featured feathered and painted entertainers "riding" outrageous prehistoric looking creatures around the ballroom.

"Some things you can't understand unless you're there," Heus says. "Pictures in a brochure don't tell the whole story." And that's just the point of the decade-long tournament tradition-a chance to network face to face on the green, see the sights first hand, and maybe, just maybe, sink a putt for your team.