LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – At Walt Disney World, you might find Darth Vader, Tinker Bell or a classic Disney princess running alongside half-marathon participants.
These events are no ordinary races, and the trips that participants take are no ordinary Disney visits. Few care about race times, particularly with opportunities to pose with costumed characters such as Donald Duck and Boba Fett. Racing is mostly about getting to the photo ops before lines get too long.
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Disney has races to honour classic Disney and Pixar characters (January and September), princesses (February), Tinker Bell (May) and superheroes from Disney’s Marvel comic books (November).
There’s also one at Disneyland Paris in September. On April 14-17, the Florida theme park hosts its first Star Wars Half Marathon — The Dark Side, following last year’s debut of The Light Side race at Disneyland in California. Another Light Side half marathon is scheduled for January 2017, with registration opening this June.
The races combine two of the world’s biggest franchises, while capitalizing on Disney’s $4 billion purchase of Lucasfilm in 2012.
Many runners come for the weekend or even the week, turning the trip into a “runcation” as they bring family to ride the rides and, for adults, drink the drinks at Epcot’s World Showcase. It becomes less of a test of endurance than a challenge to get up early after full days at the parks — races start before dawn to minimize disruptions.
Costumes are a must for many participants.
“I have a thing about princesses,” said Brooke Laing, who works at an investment bank in New York. “I wanted to dress up and have that all-girls weekend, getting to put on a tiara and have that childish experience.”
You can even ride a roller coaster near the halfway point of a full marathon in January — though if you run too fast in an early-morning event, you may find the ride not yet open.
“Disney usually puts on a pretty good show for anything you go to,” said Misty Hayes, a Fort Worth, Texas, police officer. “How many have the option of jumping on the roller coaster? It was pretty awesome.”
The Disney races aren’t free of gripe, though. They have gotten very popular in recent years, and many sell out within an hour of registration. Spouses and friends have been shut out for waiting too long. And this year, new policies put a cramp on costumes. No more face masks such as Chewbacca. Princess Leia robes and Darth Vader capes also can’t be too long.
Darrell Saria, a federal government employee in Winnipeg, Canada, said he understands the need for safety and believes it pushes people to be more creative. He has run as a mashup of Goofy and Darth Vader, and another time combining the Muppets’ Animal and Boba Fett.
He said the races turn into a social gathering.
“I’ve met a lot of people,” he said. “People who do make their own costumes give each other praises, and they intermingle. People will dress up just to have fun with it and make people smile.”
And hey, if you’re going to Disney for a race, why not do two, three or even four on consecutive days? Finish multiple races for bonus medals featuring Dopey, Goofy and Dumbo (get it?). Wear them all as you visit the theme parks afterward and take pride as they clink and clank against each other.
You also get bonus medals for running Disney races on multiple weekends. Those doing the “Star Wars” races on both coasts this year get a Millennium Falcon medal.
Disney “figured out that if you’re going to come down, especially if you’re travelling from out of town, you might as well maximize your time out there and maximize your fun,” said Mike Czernec, a software engineer who lives about an hour away in Melbourne, Florida, yet stays at a Disney World hotel for the weekend.
Mark Wietbrock, a security-technology salesman in Lake St. Louis, Missouri, does a Disney World race — or consecutive races — every other year. His wife and two younger kids, 6 and 8, have done various races with him. He said the trips are also a chance for him and his wife to return to where they started dating in 2000.
“It’s the best of both worlds to get to run and get to enjoy the parks,” he said.
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For many runners, vacation time and money are the limiting factors. Disney races tend to be more expensive than hometown races, and multi-race challenges are even more so — pricier than signing up for the races individually.
Collecting 11 medals from seven races in January cost more than $1,000 in registration fees, not to mention airfare and hotels. Though there’s no admission fee to run through the parks, the finish is in the parking lot, so you have to pay to re-enter.
Rob Biggar, a software programmer in Setauket, New York, said Disney’s multi-race challenges become “much more a test of your wallet than your stamina.”
Registration for the Disney races typically opens noon ET on a Tuesday months before the race. For instance, sign-ups begin April 26 for Disney World races in January. Get to a computer early — 12:05 p.m. could be too late given how long the registration page takes. You may be able to register through tour groups and charities, with donations or fundraising required.