Mentioning the word “Disney” to a runner can evoke some interesting reactions – there are some people who absolutely love the runDisney series races and will go out of their way to do as many as they can, while there are others who want nothing to do with these races and avoid them like the plague.
Runners who love the Disney races will typically list the experience of running through the parks, photo opportunities with Disney characters at various points along the courses, cool looking collectible race medals and the general experience of participating in an athletic event associated with Disney as reasons to love these races. On the flipside, some of the cons I’ve heard are that the races are super expensive and disorganized, and that there are a number of people who sign up for the races just to get the medals and don’t actually take the running part seriously (sometimes even purposely dropping out after the first couple miles and getting a ride to the finish line), along a general dislike of “gimicky” themed races where runners dress up in costumes.
When I ran the Disney Marathon in Orlando in 2009, I found my experience to be…. somewhere in the middle to be honest. It wasn’t necessarily an amazing magical running experience, but it also wasn’t a terrible one either. It was a fun race, and while I would agree that things could have maybe gone a little more smoothly at the start line, I enjoyed having the opportunity to run through the Disney Parks and get some behind the scenes views that aren’t necessarily available to the general public, the expo was great, and I also really like the finisher’s medal.
I’m also going to add something else that I view as a pro: I know a lot of beginning runners who had never thought about training for a marathon before hearing about the Disney races. And then after signing up for one, going through the training and running it, they fell in love with running, found other races to do and ultimately became a lot healthier as a result. I honestly don’t know of any other running event or series that has inspired that many beginners to take up running for the first time (the Rock n Roll Marathons might be a close second but Disney still holds the advantage since it’s so well known even outside of the running community).
When I did this race, there was one set of races at Disney World in Orlando in January and another at Disneyland in California in the fall but since then the series has grown into quite a long list of events. There were also a couple multiple race challenges where you would get an extra medal for doing both races (Half Marathon on Saturday + Full Marathon on Sunday at Disney World = Goofy Challenge… and anyone who did races in both Disney World and Disney Land in the same year would also get something extra). Those are still available but there are a number of new multiple race challenges available now, with the most well known one arguably being the Dopey Challenge (5K on Thursday, 10K on Friday, Half Marathon on Saturday, Full Marathon on Sunday).
I didn’t do any fancy race combos – I did a 5K fun run through Animal Kingdom on Friday morning (with no official timing and a rubber medal – not sure if this race is even available anymore) and my daughter Sara did a kid’s race on Saturday, but the main event that I went for was the full marathon on Sunday Morning. As much as the series has expanded since 2009, I don’t think that very many changes have been made to the full marathon itself. The course starts at Epcot Center underneath the big ball and heads through part of Epcot. Most of this is in the dark because the race starts really early and then by the time it starts to get lighter out, runners are heading towards the Magic Kingdom where spectators are starting to line up along the course (all of the parks are open during the race and the course is roped off so people can come cheer for the runners or walk around the parks without everyone running into each other). The Magic Kingdom section of the course is probably the most memorable because runners get to go through the middle of the big Cinderella Castle. Right on the other side of the castle is a race photographer, so if you want, you can purchase a picture of yourself running out of the castle. Then the course heads over to Animal Kindgom where runners do a lap around the giant Tree of Life before heading over to Hollywood Disney where the course goes past the giant Fantasia Wizard Hat and through some of the trailers where all of the costumes are kept. After Hollywood Disney, the course heads back through Epcot and finishes back in front of the giant ball.
A few of my observations –
- The expo is really good and has a lot of interesting vendors. It’s at the Wide World of Sports Complex and is probably one of the biggest race expos I’ve been to. It also has a lot of freebies and discounts on merchandise so make sure you give yourself enough time to walk around and check everything out.
- I think that the complaints about the races not being well organized are a bit overblown. I did have to wake up a little earlier than I thought I would for this race and there was a lot of milling around at the starting village before I actually got to go to my corral and start running but that was really the only issue I had, and honestly for the number of participants, I don’t really know what the race organizers could have changed to make things any better.
- Besides going through the parks themselves, the course goes through a number of back roads that connect the parks together. These are mostly service roads and not particularly exciting but it is kinda cool to be able to access parts of the parks that aren’t available to the general public.
- One of the side effects of running on the back roads though is that crowd support in this race is kinda weird. Inside of the parks there are a ton of people lining the course and cheering the runners on, there are also characters taking pictures with the runners and a few other surprises like animals and their trainers standing at the entrance to Animal kingdom….. but there are no spectators on the back roads because they aren’t open to the public. So prepare yourself for periods of cheering and a big party like atmosphere followed by periods of almost complete silence.
- This is not a hilly course but there are a few overpasses with inclines that can be a bit surprising if you aren’t ready for them. That being said though, this definitely isn’t as bad as other races I’ve done so it’s barely even worth mentioning.
- Watch out for the characters standing alongside the course taking pictures with runners. This is a really cool perk of the whole Run Disney experience but it can also be annoying – on more than one occasion I was cut off by runners on one side of me wanting to take pictures with a character who was standing on the other side. So make sure to be alert for these sorts of things (and on the flipside, if you’re a runner who wants to take a picture with a character on the course, you’re more than welcome to do so, but please don’t run in the middle of a pack of runners and then cut people off on your way over to get your picture taken).
- The weather in Orlando is beautiful at this time of year. After the race I went back to my hotel and sat in a hot tub outside and remember thinking that there was no way I would be doing this back home. If you travel from a northern state with colder weather down to Orlando in January, make sure you take some time after the race to relax and enjoy it.
- Prepare to spend a lot of money – this is definitely a ‘con’ of doing any of the Disney races, but honestly as long as you know what you’re in for up front and prepare yourself for it, it’s fine. Also as a side note, I didn’t stay at a hotel in the park because I thought it would save me some money. Don’t bother with this – the hotel itself was cheaper but by the time I rented a car, paid for parking, gas, etc… it was a wash at best, and at worst I probably ended up spending more than I would have if I had just stayed at the park. Unless you’re planning on going someplace else besides Disney on your trip, if you stay at one of the hotels at the actual park, you can catch a free bus from the airport and then a free shuttle bus to the race expo, start line, and from the finish line back to your hotel (along with shuttles to and from the various parks any time you want) so there’s no need to rent a car or worry about transportation which will more than cancel out the extra money you spent on the hotel.
- If you’re going to sign up for this race, go all out and sign up for the Dopey Challenge (or at least the Goofy Challenge) – you’ll kick yourself if you don’t. One of my biggest memories of this race is from the post race party, which is at Downtown Disney a few hours after the marathon: runners who do the half marathon get a Donald Duck Medal, runners who do the full marathon get a Mickey Mouse Medal, and runners who do both races get both medals plus an extra Goofy Medal. I remember walking around the post race party with my Mickey Mouse medal, looking at all the Goofy medals and wishing I would have done the half on Saturday too. It was the only time I ever ran a full marathon and felt like I didn’t put in enough miles. At the time I set a goal for myself to go back and do the Goofy Challenge at some point but now that the Dopey Challenge is available, I might need to do that instead.
- As far as people signing up for the race just to get the medals and then purposefully dropping out after a couple miles because they never intended to run the entire course anyway…. I didn’t see anyone doing this when I ran it (although I’m assuming that anyone who did this probably started at the back of the pack) and didn’t even really know it was an issue until someone else recently told me about it…. I get that the medals are all collectible – they change every year and Disney only has enough made for the number of participants in the race, so they’re pretty rare. I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable taking a race medal if I didn’t actually train for the race at all and knew ahead of time that I was going to drop out but hey to each his own I guess – I try not to concern myself with what other people are doing and like I said earlier, the fact that so many new runners really do train for these races and push themselves hard to earn their medals more than cancels out the others who are only in it for the bling.
Overall, I don’t think I would ever necessarily go out of my way to do all of the races in the runDisney series (not because I have any specific complaints as much the thought of having a goal like that isn’t something that gets me really fired up), but I would definitely go back and do this race again. In fact, I’m going to have to at some point so I can do the Dopey Challenge lol. In a few months I’m going to be doing the Zion Canyon Half Marathon in Utah, followed by the Grand Teton Half in Wyoming a couple months later and I’m looking forward to the natural beauty and being able to run through some U.S. National Parks a lot more than I would be looking forward to running through the Disney Parks again, but the race was not a bad experience at all. Love ’em or hate ’em, the Run Disney races are some of the biggest races around and have inspired countless numbers of people to take up running over the years, so in that sense, I think that the race organizers deserve a lot of respect.