The runDisney Experience: Race Weekend
You may recall that I recently did an article on runDisney, basically explaining what how to plan and prepare for a runDisney event. Now that you know WHAT runDisney is and you’ve signed up for a race, I’m sure you’d like to know what to expect when that weekend finally arrives. Read on for more details about what the race weekend experience is all about.
The first real taste of the race weekend you’re likely to experience is the runDisney Expo, which is held at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports. Generally speaking, you MUST go to the expo at least one day before your race to pick up your race bib(s) and shirt(s). Accordingly, check the Expo hours and make sure you plan for it when you travel and arrive early enough the day before to give yourself time to make it by.
There are three main components of the Expo. The first thing you’re going to want to do is turn in your waiver (there is a place to print it out and sign it if you forgot it) and get your race bib. You must PERSONALLY pick up your bib, and you will need a photo ID to prove you are who you say you are. You CANNOT pick up a bib for someone else (unless that person is a minor).
This area is also where Runner Relations is located, so if you have any issues with your registration or otherwise, you can handle that here. There’s not really anything else of note here, and you’re probably not going to spend much more time than it takes to get your bib at this location.
There are two other areas at the Expo. You’ll want to take your bib to the main expo hall, which is where you’ll be able to get your race shirt and shop for all manner of different running and fitness-related items. There are a large number of vendors here, and you can do everything from buying running gear, getting taped, having special themed beers and cocktails, or even having your nails done. This part of the Expo is a great place to pick up anything that you may have forgotten — at various times, I’ve had to buy KT tape, energy gels, Flipbelts, and probably some other stuff I can’t recall right now. It’s probably the biggest variable in terms of how much time you spend at the Expo, because if you really wanted to, you could spend a lot of time there. I personally enjoy it and find it worthwhile, but it really depends upon how much you like to shop and whether there’s anything that you need.
There is yet another area that is full of official Disney run-themed merchandise, including commemorative items for that particular race weekend. This is also where you pick up pre-ordered runDisney merchandise. If you haven’t come up with an outfit for race day, it’s a great place to at least grab a themed shirt for a quick and easy costume.
The only thing you NEED to do at the Expo is get your race bib. I timed my most recent bib pickup, and neither rushing nor dawdling, it took me about 13 minutes from the moment I stepped off the bus until I was out of that area and would have been in a position to leave, so that’s probably the bare minimum amount of time you could expect to spend at the Expo. Most runners will also want to go by the exhibitor’s hall to at least get their race shirt as well, and just getting the shirt will add another 10-15 minutes. All told, I got my bibs and shirts, bought a few runDisney items, visited a few vendor booths, and had a snack, and I spent about 80 minutes total between the three Expo areas. Your mileage will likely vary, of course, but it should give you a sense of how much time to budget for it.
Getting Up and Transportation
I get that it’s unusual to include waking up and getting out of bed as a to-do item, but it’s warranted under the circumstances. runDisney events are EARLY, starting at 5:30 a.m. You’ll be asked to be on a bus to the staging area by 3:30 a.m. for the half marathon, and 4 a.m. for the 10k and 5k. Make sure you set an alarm. I usually set several times counter my body’s reaction to my awakening at such an unholy hour. If you’re staying at a Disney hotel, there will be boards posted around the resort telling you where and when to pick up those buses. If you’re coming from off-site, be sure to check the Digital Event Guide that is released 2-3 weeks prior to the race to know where you need to go for the race. Note that the Start Line and Finish Line may be at different places, so you may be asked to park your car at one location and then be bused to the Start Line, which could obviously add time to your journey. Have a plan for how you’re getting to the race before you wake up. It is also a good idea to lay out your clothing and gear the night before. There’s nothing like trying to remember where you put the little bag of safety pins that came with your race bib at 2 a.m. Save yourself some stress and have everything all together the night before.
While You’re Waiting
When you first arrive, you’ll be in a large holding area. There will be places to pick up a bite to eat or a drink, music, and lots of character photo opportunities to give you something to do while you’re waiting for everyone else to arrive and the corrals to open. There are also ample port-o-potties for a last-minute pit stop.
Approximately 45 minutes or so prior to the start of the race, they will open the corrals and begin encouraging runners to work their way over towards the starting corrals. You’ll have a letter on your bib identifying your corral (e.g., A, B, C, etc.), so head for the big globe of light with that letter on it and enter your corral. You are free to start in a later corral, but you cannot move up. For example, if you are in the E corral and you have a friend running in the B corral, you may not join her in the B corral, but she can drop back and run with you in the E corral.
These corrals are quite large, with each holding several thousand people, so if being at the front of your corral (and therefore starting in the early waves of that corral) is important to you, plan on heading to the corrals sooner than later. Note, when you pick up your shirt at the Expo, they’ll also give you a large clear bag to store your gear in. You’ll have the opportunity to check that in right before you enter the corrals; you’ll then pick it up at the conclusion of the race. As is always the case with any running event, don’t bring more than you need to, and if you can go without, even better.
Once you get over to the corrals, there’s a pretty consistent order to how things progress. During the time that people start filling the corrals, there is what I would characterize as casual entertainment — there’s a DJ playing music, encouraging sing-a-longs, chatting with runners in the crowd, that sort of thing. As it gets closer to the start, they do a more formal program featuring the runDisney entertainment team and race sponsors and charities that’s keyed to the race theme (e.g., there were a lot of Star Wars clips and characters as part of the program before the Star Wars races). The entertainment crew does a great job, especially considering a decent amount of it is improv, and while I’m not saying I would wake up at 3 just for the show, I always enjoy it. The show concludes with the National Anthem, and then the race is underway!
Disney will separate the thousands of runners there into manageable chunks and send a new wave out every few minutes to provide some separation on the course. The first group to go off is the wheelchair and hand bike group — they are given a couple of minutes to get in front of the runners since they can generally outpace those of us on foot. After that, they release a wave of several hundred runners at a time every few minutes to minimize congestion and hopefully give people enough space to run. For the Star Wars half, for example, there were 18 waves, so if you’re toward the back of the last corral, you’ll be starting the race well after the 5:30 gun time. Each wave includes a send off with a countdown and fireworks!
Let’s get this out of the way: the size and scope of these races is massive, with thousands of runners doing each of the courses. Also, there are LOTS of people that walk or run-walk these races, even in the preferred corrals. Accordingly, this is probably not the race to expect to set a personal record. The sheer volume of runners on the courses leads to congestion, especially at the start, and even after you do manage to spread yourself out and get some space, there are several natural pinch points on every course that will slow you down. Unless you’re starting at the front of the A-corral, there will be several instances where your speed may be artificially limited. runDisney events are more of an opportunity to enjoy a fun run in a one-of-a-kind environment than showcase your blazing speed.
On-Course Runner Amenities
Water is plentiful on the course. For example, the half marathon course for the Star Wars Rival Run included 9 scheduled water stops, though Disney may add water stops on particularly hot days as needed. Longer courses will include energy gels or beans on the course as well — one for the half marathon, more for a full marathon — that you’ll encounter on the second half of the course.
Generally speaking, when you see a water stop, there will be bathrooms nearby, so the longest you’ll have to wait to go to the bathroom is every mile and a half or so at the most. Additionally, when you’re in the parks or other areas generally open to the public, bathrooms that would be open during normal park hours will also be available for you to use. Finally, don’t be surprised to see people just run off to the side of the woods to take care of business. I’m not advocating this, but far too many people do it to pretend it’s not a thing. When you gotta go, you gotta go, I guess.
Medical tents are also sprinkled throughout the course; there will at a minimum be the ones marked on the course map, but, not unlike water stops, there may be more added depending upon course conditions. They include self-help remedies like biofreeze and blister treatment, and medics that can help with cramps and all manner of other ailments. They are there to help, and if you think you might need to stop by a medic tent, you probably do, so make sure you take advantage of them if necessary.
One unique feature of runDisney races is the presence of characters throughout the course for photo opportunities. Two observations about these meet and greets: (1) they generate long lines, but (2) the lines move quite a bit faster than traditional meet and greets. It’s still a race, and the protocol is generally to get in, take the picture, and move on so the next person can jump in there. It’s not the place to have a lengthy discussion with Cinderella about her choice of footwear — save that for the meet and greets in the parks or at character meals. When there is a PhotoPass photographer, you do not scan your MagicBand as you would at a traditional PhotoPass location in the parks — these photos are linked to you based upon your bib number, so make sure it’s clearly visible.
There are several other photo opportunities over the course of these races. You’ll see small green tents along the sides of the course with photographers in them, and they are pretty much taking photos non-stop. The idea is that these photographers take ACTION pictures of you running or at least moving. DO NOT STOP AND POSE in front of these tents — it’s not safe because other runners are expecting you to keep moving, and you will accordingly get yelled at by the photographers. I can unfortunately personally attest that someone abruptly stopping to pose in front of one of these tents can cause on-course collisions and present a serious safety risk other runners on the course. These tents are almost entirely found in the parks themselves, and only rarely show up on the open road. If you see one on one side, there will almost certainly be one on the other side as well, so just drift towards whichever one is closer if you’d like to get that action shot.
At the very end of the race are what racers affectionately(?) refer to as the Balloon Ladies. Another way to think of them is the sweepers, i.e., the people that remove runners that aren’t maintaining the pace you have to keep to stay on the course. They don’t personally remove you, but if you fall behind their pace, you’ll be politely asked to get on a “Parade Bus” that will take you back to the staging area. While the mere mention of the Balloon Ladies strikes fear in the hearts of runners, the reality is that they are runners, just like you, and they will try to keep you on pace and want to see you cross the finish line as much as anyone. The pace you have to maintain is 16 minutes per mile. With that said, they start at the very back of the final corral, so depending upon what corral you’re in when you start, you might have a significant cushion beyond that pace.
You’ve done it! There’s no feeling like hitting that finish line, so get ready for that finish line picture! Try to position yourself so that you’ve got some space around you so the cameras can get a clear shot of you crossing.
Keep moving after you cross the finish. For one thing, nobody likes that knucklehead that drops at the finish line to do a dozen push-ups, but more importantly, there are lots of people crossing behind you, and you really just need to get out of the way to make space for them. Get that medal, and keep those feet going. Race volunteers will no doubt remind you of this if you try to linger.
Having done all three Star Wars races back to back to back recently, I was struck by the different vibes at the finish line. All three races have a celebratory energy at the finish line, of course, but the longer races also have a much more open focus on your health. For the half marathon in particular, there is a large post-race medic area, and there are people at the finish line taking a close look at you, actively making sure you’re OK and helping you over if you need help. These folks are no doubt present at the end of all the races, but they are very visible after a half or full marathon.
Post Race Photos
Once you’ve cleared the immediate finish area, you’ll have the opportunity to grab a bottle of water and/or Powerade, and then given some post-race snacks and — of course — a banana.
There’s a large area here where PhotoPass photographers will take victory photos of you showing off that hardware. Quick tip: people gravitate to the first that they see, but there are a large number of identical areas for these pictures on either side, so move past the first few for a shorter wait.
Post Race Staging
Once you’ve cleared this area, you’ll be able to collect your gear if you dropped anything off, and then you’ll be shuffled to an area open to the general public where you can reconnect with friends and family. You’ll have the opportunity to buy some food or drink (including a celebratory beer or glass of bubbly if you’re so inclined), take additional character photos, and otherwise relax while you recover. Note that non-runners cannot join you before you get to this area.
Weather in Florida is unpredictable, and that remains the case on race days as well. Honestly, it would be a little unusual to have a race weekend without something quirky happening. Sometimes it’s unusually cold, more often it’s unusually hot — I can’t tell you how many runDisney races I’ve done where I’ve heard them warn about going too hard because of the heat — and sometimes there will be storms.
Rain is not a problem (and the race will go on even if it is raining), but lightning is a problem. They will postpone or even cancel a race if there’s lightning in the area. This recently happened with the 2019 Star Wars 5k, so I got to personally see the process unfold. We were lined up in the Epcot parking lot and about to start, when we received an announcement that the race was being postponed on account of lightning and that we all needed to seek shelter. They brought buses alongside the start corrals, and runners were encouraged to sit in them to allow the storm to pass.
Once the buses filled up (which was pretty quickly), anyone still out in the open had to go to Epcot to seek shelter.
I ended up in Innoventions East right underneath the most fitting sign ever.
Eventually, they reopened the course, and runners began making their way back towards the start line. After about a 90-minute delay, however, they opted to forego putting everyone back into their corrals, and the instructions were basically “when you get to the finish line, go.” They also chose to shorten the course, cutting out a series of switchbacks in Epcot, so we ended up doing about 2.6 miles, according to my tracker.
This was obviously a unique situation, and between the delay and getting why-not-just-jump-into-a-pool drenched with rain, it was objectively pretty miserable. With that said, there is some camaraderie in a shared experience like that, and I think most people took it in stride and enjoyed it for what it was. This provides a great opportunity to point out that the overwhelming majority of the course personnel you’re likely to encounter during the race — the people helping to check you in to your corrals, the people giving you water and Powerade, the people giving you medals at the end of the race — are volunteers. They are waking up even earlier than you are, NOT to run and get a medal, but to help you have an incredible experience. Understand that regardless of what’s happening, everyone out there shares the common goal of an amazing and safe race, so be gracious and show those volunteers some love out there.
Late Bib Pickup
I hesitate to even mention this because I don’t want to encourage people to use it, but if you were unable to make it to the expo to pick up your bib — maybe your flight got in late, or you got stuck at the top of Splash Mountain and it put you behind schedule — you can in fact pick it up the day of the race. Go to the Information booth immediately upon entering the race area that morning. If you’re forced to go this route, at least try to get there as early as possible.
Resort Atmosphere and Logistics
Lots of people that aren’t doing the races are nevertheless at Disney on race weekends, and if you’re one of those folks, there are some things that you’re going to want to know about the impact the races have upon your trip. You should receive a flyer in your room that will advise you of the anticipated disruptions to particular resorts, transit, and parks. If you happen to be up and driving around the property when the races are going on (especially the longer races), keep in mind that you may be rerouted to account for thousands of people running around the roads of the Walt Disney World property.
One benefit of the early start time for the runDisney races is that the disruption they cause is minimized. Unless you happen to be up really early, you’re unlikely to notice the 5k happening at all unless you’re at a resort that is close to the start and hear the fireworks. The same is true for the 10k to a lesser extent: you may see evidence of it, but the race will be over by the time the parks it passes through open so it won’t disrupt park flow.
The same is not true about the half marathon and marathon, however — they both stretch long enough into the morning that there will be runners on the course in the parks at the same time as regular park guests. What’s more, they’ll have the right of way, so if you’re over by Soarin’ and you want to get to Mission Space, there will be a stream of runners blocking your path. Disney addresses this by using sort of an airlock-style method of moving chunks of guests across the course at a time by changing the runners’ course on the fly to go around you, but the point is, it will take a few minutes longer than normal. Plan accordingly.
All told, the races themselves are surprisingly not THAT disruptive, considering that there are thousands of people running around the property all weekend long, and it’s certainly manageable. With that said, race weekends bring enough extra crowds and congestion that it would be tough to recommend visiting during a race weekend if you’re not participating in any of the runDisney activities. For planning purposes, it would be recommended that you pick a different weekend.
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What are your thoughts on runDisney events? Have any tips for first time runDisney runners? Any questions? Let us know in the comments!
3 thoughts on “The runDisney Experience: Race Weekend”
Great report and info. Just curious, what day/time did you hit the expo? I was there Thursday afternoon and it was jammed…nothing like your pictures.
Thank you! It was early afternoon on Thursday — from about 1:45 until a little after 3.
Great series of articles-very helpful!!
Do you get your photopass pictures through the regular package, or is there a special package you need to purchase?