This was not a half marathon, but if there are any readers of this blog out there, you should find the information contained within to be just as useful for the Walt Disney World Half Marathon as you do for the full.
We were once advised to never run a marathon that also included a half marathon starting at the same time. Because of this advice, and because of the allure of Disney, we registered for the culminating event at Disney's Marathon Weekend: the Walt Disney World Marathon. For anyone considering the event, it is a race to run a least once in a lifetime.
Because the marathon is the last of four days of events, the race expo was also held for four days. Although we arrived on the last day, and nearly in the final hours of the expo, the vendors were still well-stocked with merchandise and there was no sign that things were winding down.
The expo was held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex from Wednesday to Saturday. Bibs were housed in the HP Field House's lower level, and from there runners were directed to the Josten's Center. At Josten's, runners could browse the plethora of vendors on their way to pick up their technical, long-sleeve, gender specific race shirts. While official race merchandise was pricey ($38 was the average price for a short sleeve shirt) there were some deals to be had. Sweaty Bands had their usual discount section of $5 and $10 items, marked down from the usual $15-$18.
The best deal to be had at the expo was the free photo op at the Cigna Insurance booth. For as crowded as the expo was, lines were minimal so there was little effort involved in obtaining a memorable 360 degree photo. How often does a runner have a chance to do this?
Hotel options in Orlando are limitless, so there are plenty of options for runners who need overnight accommodations. Because Disney offers a free shuttle to their races for all runners staying on Disney properties, this takes a lot of hassle out of race morning (or mornings). Roads were jam-packed with cars, and with enough to worry about on race day, it can be relief to take transportation off your plate. We took advantage of the shuttles and because buses were arriving every few minutes, there was no need to panic about availability. Disney staff tried to convince us to leave the property at the unspeakable hour of 3 am. After talking to some runners who participated in the half-marathon the day before, we discovered we would be safe leaving the hotel on the 4 am shuttle. This departure time was perfect. We arrived at the Epcot starting line with plenty of time to wait in line at the port-o-lets, stretch, and walk the fifteen minutes to the official starting line.
Another plus to an on-property hotel: Disney also offers accommodations at a variety of price points, so runners on a budget can stay at one of the All-Star resorts for about $100 a night. Since these rooms have refrigerators, it is easy enough to stock up on breakfast food to eat prior to your race's 5:30 am start. Any runner wishing for a hot tub post-race should consider going up a price point. Disney's budget hotels don't have them. Knowing what we know now, we would have opted for a stay at a resort like Port Orleans.
Places to Eat
Much like hotels, dining options in Orlando are also limitless. If you want to carb load on some high quality Italian food, try Delmonico's Italian Steakhouse. If quality isn't an issue, any of the Disney food courts will do just fine, just be prepared to spend more money on inferior food.
The Walt Disney World Marathon course offers runners the chance to tour six Disney properties: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, ESPN Wide World of Sports, Hollywood Studios, Disney Yacht & Beach Club, and Epcot Center. Running through the parks is an experience like no other. While the sights at the parks offer runners unique marathon views, racing through Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom also offers runners the chance to race to the dramatic and moving sounds of Disney theme park music. If the views aren't enough to transport you, the sights in conjunction with the sounds of Disney make a runner feel like part of a Disney adventure.
Fan support was multitudinous on the six Disney properties, and still impressive in between. While throngs of spectators cheered runners on at park entrances and within, many die-hard friends and family members could be found on the roads between parks. This was no easy feat. According to our own friends (who arrived at Disney with a spectating plan) getting between parks was a challenge, and they were discouraged by employees from venturing out onto the roads. Note to future support crew: it can be done, you just have to outwit Disney. We hypothesized that there are so many repeat runners that tons of people have figured out how to make it happen. Here are our tips for spectators:
- Arrive at the Epcot start with your runners. If you don't, you will be paralyzed by the road closings and shuttle limitations.
- Don't plan on bringing a bike or being able to do much walking between cheering locations. The course isn't walker friendly unless you are walking the actual marathon.
- Buy a park pass if you want more access points for cheering. This won't seem like such a hard hit if you and your runners are planning on hanging out at the parks anyway.
The most magical fan experience of all was running through Hollywood Studios. This was the first park we reached that was open to the public. It was a great honor to see guests who had paid to visit the park, stop, and with genuine enthusiasm, cheer on all the runners. Many looked awed and inspired by the event, and at mile 23, this was just what many runners needed to see. Runners in later corrals may have reached other parks when they opened to the public, but for our corrals (A and D) Hollywood Studios was the sweet spot.
The course led runners in a giant circle, so we ended where we began: Epcot. A finisher chute led us past final stands of cheering fans and toward the finish line where Disney characters were high fiving runners in congratulations. An army of volunteers was on hand to award runners their impressive Mickey finisher medals. Massive quantities of Dasani and Powerade were available for rehydration, and each runner was provided with a banana and box of tortilla chips, dipping cheese, Oreo cookies, dried cranberries, and a protein bar.
Because the race ended where it began, runners could pick up their gear check bags in the same place that they were dropped off. The same stage that entertained us at the beginning was entertaining us post-race. A note to the post-race beer drinkers: though beer was not free, it was available for purchase.
The marathon's post-race event was held at Disney Springs later that day. Though it supposedly began at 2 pm, we didn't see anything resembling a party on the property. We did see plenty of runners wandering through Disney Springs wearing their finisher medals which earned them small discounts at a handful of stores.
Disney has got the whole huge marathon experience figured out. From shuttles to gear drop to hydration stations, Disney has figured out how to deliver in an efficient and manageable way. While not overly generous, in terms of "stuff" (beer, food, swag, park admission) the entire experience is well worth the high registration cost. Running any marathon is glorious enough thanks to the hard work involved, but couple that with the magic of Disney and you've got the recipe for the ultimate runner's high.